A Rubens painting keeps the courts busy

DW 10 November 2023
By Marina Jung

Who owns "Tarquinius and Lucretia"? Certainly not the Russian who acquired it in 1999, a court recently ruled. The Rubens painting was lost as looted art during the war. The chances of restitution are slim.

Visitors look at an old black-and-white photo of the missing painting by Peter Paul Rubens at the Gallery of Sanssouci in Potsdam

"Tarquinius and Lucretia" is the subject of long German-Russian disputes. The painting by Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) disappeared from Germany after World War II. Around 20 years ago, it was discovered in Russia — in the possession of art dealer Vladimir Logvinenko.

The story didn't end there. Logvinenko tried to have his ownership rights recognized in Germany — unsuccessfully. This attempt at clarification could well have been motivated by a desire to sell the painting, which is estimated to be worth tens of millions of euros. As long as it is listed in all loss registers, however, such a request is impossible.

How did the Rubens painting end up in Russia?

The judiciary has been dealing with the conundrum for over 20 years.

The Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation Berlin-Brandenburg (Stiftung Preussische Schlösser und Gärten, SPSG) and the Russian citizen Vladimir Logvinenko are still fighting over the painting.

The German side claims that the painting was taken to the Soviet Union in the course of looting. According to the SPSG, "the painting 'Tarquinius and Lucretia' by Peter Paul Rubens, painted around 1610 or 1611, was part of the collection in the Picture Gallery in Potsdam's Sanssouci Park before it was removed due to the war. Like the other paintings in the gallery, it was moved to the Rheinsberg Palace in 1942 to protect it from war damage."

According to Russian accounts, the painting hung in the bedroom of a house in which a Soviet officer was residing in 1945. After the officer was transferred, he is said to have taken all the contents of the house, including the Rubens.

Finally, the dealer Logvinenko acquired the painting in 1999 and had it restored. The Potsdam public prosecutor's office investigated, but discontinued proceedings in 2006 because initial suspicion of a criminal offense had not been confirmed. The case concerned gang theft.

A protracted conflict

The Rubens painting has been a thorny issue in terms of German-Russian relations. Even the heads of state got involved. Hannes Hartung, a Munich-based lawyer specializing in international art law, wrote in his dissertation on "Art theft in war and persecution" that "after the intervention of the two heads of state, Vladimir Putin and Gerhard Schröder, in September 2003, and the confiscation at the request of the Federal Republic of Germany, it had long looked as if a positive precedent could be established through the restitution of an important exhibit." It seemed like the painting could be returned to Germany.

However, the Russian Federation's willingness to cooperate subsequently waned because "the current owner insisted that he had acquired the painting in good faith and the Federal Republic of Germany was also unable to provide complete proof of ownership status and the exact circumstances of a war-related relocation," according to Hartung's explanation.

Nevertheless, Logvinenko is not the owner, according to the court ruling,

In 2021, Logvinenko then appealed to the Potsdam Regional Court to have his ownership rights to the painting recognized. In November 2023, the court ruled: "The plaintiff is not the owner of the painting."

When asked by DW, the Potsdam court explained that the legal dispute was subject to Russian law, as the painting was indisputably located in Russia at the time of Logvinenko's acquisition. The fact that the court was nevertheless able to reach its verdict is due to a legal opinion that was obtained. According to this, the court can now take the view "that the plaintiff is not the owner of the painting under the relevant Russian law because he did not acquire ownership either through a legal transaction or through acquisition in good faith, and did not inherit it."

Consequences of the Potsdam ruling

The current court decision from Potsdam does not mean that the Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation Berlin-Brandenburg is the owner, nor does it mean that the entrepreneur from Russia must return the painting. The foundation told DW: "A return was not the subject of the previous proceedings. Further steps are currently being examined."

According to the SPSG, the Rubens painting had been "considered lost since the end of the war. It is one of the most serious wartime losses of our foundation and was long-wanted by Interpol."

The foundation has no information about where the painting is currently being kept. "It was last in the possession of a Russian citizen (Editor's note: this refers to Vladimir Logvinenko), who wanted to go to court to establish that he was the owner. The SPSG has opposed this."

Why did Logvinenko turn to a German court?

Apparently, the Rubens painting is still in the possession of Vladimir Logvinenko. The Berlin-based law firm Unger, which represents Logvinenko, did not respond to an inquiry as to the purpose of the legal clarification regarding the recognition of ownership and why it took place in Germany.

Hannes Hartung, an expert in art law, explains: "'Tarquinius and Lucretia' is still listed in all lost property registers. There is the state database 'Lost Art.' There are also private loss databases. A painting like this is completely unsaleable for the Russian owner as long as it is being sought as looted art, as it is now." The ownership status is also highly questionable because it is looted art.

The lawyer from Munich assumes that the Russian investor has been advised to file a lawsuit. "Many people hope that they can plead acquisitive prescription, i.e. that the painting was seized in good faith and they therefore became the owner," says Hartung.

Why the question of ownership is so important

The currently rejected complaint by the Russian citizen can really only mean one thing: The plaintiff wants to sell the Rubens abroad. "He needs a kind of 'clean bill of health,' but he won't get one" from the SPSG, explains expert Hannes Hartung, who once represented the art collector Cornelius Gurlitt under civil law.

The Gurlitt case goes back to a large art find that raised the question of whether Nazi-looted art was among the inherited artworks.

Logvinenko has to bear the costs of the Potsdam proceedings as the plaintiff. He can still appeal. Hartung believes that the art dealer may have speculated. "He thought that he would be able to sell the painting on for a large profit at some point. That's not possible with looted art."

Twenty years ago, it was still hoped that an agreement could be reached and that "Tarquinius and Lucretia" would be returned to Germany. And now? "The German-Russian looted art debate is frozen. We had a very open relationship around 2006, 2007. Since the war in Ukraine, the door has been closed and there are no talks between Germany and the Russian Federation," summarizes Hartung.

The ambiguity over its ownership remains, and the stalemate may well go on for another 20 years.

This article was translated from German.
© website copyright Central Registry 2024