Glasnost on War's Looted Art

The New York Times 12 March 2003
Sophia Kishkovsky

MOSCOW — For more than 50 years the Soviet Union hid them in museum basements and secret repositories, one reportedly in a monastery wall. Now, reflecting increased glasnost, Russia's Ministry of Culture is posting images and descriptions of them on a new Web site.

They are thousands of paintings, archives and rare books looted by Soviet forces in Germany and Eastern Europe during and after World War II and taken to Russia as so-called trophy art. (Now the preferred term in Russia is "displaced cultural treasures.") Hitler's forces had previously pillaged many of the works from Jewish owners and other Nazi victims.

The site is also being used to search for what the ministry estimates as two million works of art that disappeared from Russian museums during the Nazi occupation. An unknown number were destroyed in the war, but some have turned up in Russian antiques shops or at auctions abroad; a few have been returned by Germany.

But the site, which has two Web addresses, and, has problems: it operates only in Russian and has no system for searching for a specific artist or title; someone investigating the site must usually read each museum's entire list.

As of this month, the site has 10,000 items, said Aleksandr V. Kibovsky, the culture ministry official in charge. "The plan is to have 500,000 by 2005," he added.

Mr. Kibovsky said claimants would have 18 months from the time an item was posted to file a formal petition for restitution through their governments. Unclaimed items would then be declared Russian property.

Asked about the prospects for an English translation of the material on the site, he said that the culture ministry was always short of funds and that the priority was to make all the information public. He noted that the site provided color photographs and dimensions of paintings and rendered the titles of foreign books (but not artworks) in their original languages, approaches that could alleviate some of the difficulties.

The site includes lists from 19 museums, libraries and archives in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod and several other cities. Most institutional links on the site are still empty. But the lists do include seven 17th-century German book collections now at the State Public Historical Library in Moscow, an extensive archive from the German colony in Bessarabia at the State Historical Museum, and several hundred paintings now in the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow.

The site's listings for the Grabar Restoration Center, a prominent art conservation organization based in Moscow, include photographs of any identification marks on paintings, like stamps, seals and original inventory numbers.

Konstantin Akinsha is one of two art historians who first revealed the existence of the Soviet Union's hidden wartime treasures in 1991. (It is still a troubling issue to Russians, and scarce funds and concerns over restitution have led to the long delay in formally requesting claims.) Mr. Akinsha said he was both impressed with the new Web site's potential riches and frustrated by its technical shortcomings.
"There are some very valuable paintings" at the Pushkin, said Mr. Akinsha, who is now based in Washington. "There are about a dozen Cranach paintings, so that is something, one not bad Goya, an interesting Degas."

He said he worried that Nazi victims and their heirs would find the monolingual site difficult to navigate and would not locate their possessions in time to claim them.

A selection of masterpieces seized by Soviet forces, including works by Degas, El Greco, Goya and Renoir, made a grand splash at exhibitions at the Pushkin Museum and the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg in 1995. But other artworks remained hidden.

In 1997 Russia's parliament voted to declare artwork taken from Nazi collections and German state institutions, including museums, as just compensation for Russia's wartime losses and to allow the return of art only to Nazi victims and religious and charitable institutions. Some restitution has since taken place, like the return of 101 drawings to the Bremen Art Museum collection and most recently of 111 panels of 14th-century stained glass windows to St. Mary's Cathedral at Frankfurt an der Oder.

In exchange for the Bremen drawings, Germany returned an Amber Room mosaic from the Yekaterinsky Palace at Tsarskoye Selo and paintings from other palaces near St. Petersburg.

Izvestia, the Moscow newspaper, reported today that the extensive art collection salvaged in Germany by Viktor Baldin, a former Soviet Army officer, would be returned from the Hermitage to the Bremen museum later this month.

Russia has also restored vast archives to France, and this winter received from the United States the Smolensk Communist Party archives, which were seized by the Nazis in 1941. After the war American forces took some of their contents to Washington, where they became an important source for Sovietologists.

Some Russian news reports warned that the return of the archives would lead to a flood of requests for restitution.

"Exchanging Stalinist Waste Paper for Hermitage Masterpieces," read a headline in Itogi, a weekly news magazine.

But at a recent news conference at the Ministry of Culture, Russian journalists were much more concerned about the fate of trophy art still in Belarus and Ukraine, former Soviet republics that are now independent.

In 2000 the German government set up its own Lost Art Internet Database,, also available in English and Russian. It lists 42,000 items confiscated by Soviet forces from German museums.

It also catalogs the remaining items in the so-called Linz collection, made up of works confiscated from Jews and opponents of the Nazis, which Hitler planned to place in a huge museum to be built in Linz, Austria.

Descriptions of lost items are posted by their owners, and items of questionable provenance are listed by museums. At least three paintings that belonged to Nazi victims have found their rightful owners through the site, said Michael Franz, the project's director. He added that he was considering linking the German site to the Russian one.

Christina Weiss, the German culture minister, said the Russian site was a "welcome step toward openness and transparency about previously hidden treasures."

Although Russia has said that it supports returning art to Holocaust victims, the mechanisms for such restitution are still unclear.

A claim filed several years ago by Martha Nierenberg, the American granddaughter of Baron Maurice Herzog, a Hungarian Jew whose art collection included works by El Greco and Goya, has been bogged down in Russian court proceedings, said Charles Goldstein, chief legal counsel for the Commission for Art Recovery, a New York group established to spur restitution efforts. (Much of the Herzog art seized by Hitler's forces in Hungary was intercepted by Russia when the Nazis tried to ship it to Germany.)

Paintings labeled Herzog are on display with the permanent collection at the Pushkin. But Mr. Goldstein praised Russia's willingness to deal with its wartime legacy. "It's a very encouraging phenomenon," he said.

Mr. Kibovsky of the Culture Ministry in Russia said, "We want this question to go from the political and scandalous level to the cultural sphere, to be based on law and agreements."

Irina A. Antonova, the Pushkin's director, who as a young woman helped receive some of the wartime art taken to Moscow, declined to comment when she learned in late February that the Web site was already operating. The ministry had not informed the museum, which was still finalizing its art list, that the site was available, said Tatyana V. Potapova, the Pushkin's chief curator. She said a total of almost 740 of the museum's paintings would soon be posted there.

"We're ready for claims to be made," she said. "Our work is to display and study paintings."
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