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Culture

Disputed German Art Collection Causes Political Row in Russia

The ongoing struggle to return artwork taken from Germany during the last days of World War II has caused a political conflict in Russia as a disputed collection of drawings recently went on display in Moscow.

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This painting by Albrecht Dürer found its way home to Germany -- others are not so lucky.

A collection of so-called "trophy art" from artists such as Rembrandt, Rubens and Raphael has gone on display in Moscow's Museum of Architecture, causing a political squabble between two of Russia's most prominent culture ministry figures.

60. Jahrestag von der Schlacht um Stalingrad

The artwork is seen as compensation for the destruction prior to the German defeat.

Current Minister for Culture Mikhail Shvydkoi argues that the 362 drawings and two small paintings, among thousands of works of art that were taken from the defeated nations after the end of World War II, should be returned. His predecessor and communist member of parliament, Nikolai Gubenko, opposes returning trophy art, especially without compensation.

Collection taken from German castle

The collection in question was taken from a German castle, Schloss Karnzow, near the town of Kyritz north of Berlin at the end of World War II by Viktor Baldin, a Soviet army captain. After dragging the masterworks back to the Soviet Union in a suitcase, Baldin kept the collection under a bed in his office for three years before he gave it to the Moscow museum in 1948. The collection was transferred to the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg in 1991 and returned to Moscow for the opening of the exhibition this weekend, along with copies of Baldin's letters and accounts of his quest to return the art.

Baldin, also an art restorer and later director of the architecture museum in Moscow, always maintained his desire to return the artworks to their owner, the Bremen Kunsthalle. However, after many aborted attempts, thwarted by various communist leaders during the Cold War, Baldin's wish was not fulfilled during his lifetime. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, calls for the art to be returned to Germany fell on deaf ears.

Many Russians feel the trophy art is rightful compensation for the 20 million deaths, untold injuries and immense destruction the Soviet Union suffered from the Nazi invasion. Resentment concerning the issue has simmered since the end of World War II.

Proposed return of collection deemed illegal

Mosaik aus dem Bernsteinzimmer

An Amber Room masterpiece returned to Russia

The current argument between the two culture ministers over the fate of the collection erupted publicly last week when the Russian Prosecutor General's Office stepped into the fight, warning Shvydkoi that it would be illegal to send the collection to Germany. Current Russian law refuses to accept "displaced" artworks as stolen, instead deeming them spoils of war.

Former Culture Minister Gubenko claims the collection, which also includes examples of work by Titian, Albrecht Dürer and Eugène Delacroix, is worth around €1.37 billion ($1.5 billion) although Architecture Museum Director David Sarkisian said at the opening of the exhibition that he estimated it to be worth less. Sarkisian was quoted in The Moscow Times as saying that a Russian auction house, Gelos, had appraised the collection at about €21.6 million, with one work alone, a Goya portrait, worth more than €3.7 million.

War for culture

Sarkisian said it was "sad" that the works had caused a "political scandal and an atmosphere of controversy." "As museum guardians, we don't want to start any fights," he added.

"In all spheres, the war is over for us. We're already friendly with Germans, we marry them, we dream of traveling there and they here. But for some reason, there's a terrible war going on for culture."

Baldin's widow told of her late husband's long campaign for the works to be returned to Germany at Saturday's opening. Yulia Baldin said the works should be handed back and that opponents to her husband's wishes should "calm down." She added that she hoped that common sense would prevail.

Russia denies "looted" claim

The subject of "looted" art and its return continues to be a very sensitive one between Germany and Russia. In 2001, the Russian Ministry of Culture established an interdepartmental council of experts, which announced that European cultural treasures taken to Russia as war spoils by army brigades in the postwar period would no longer be regarded as "looted art."

Instead, they would be officially referred to as "compensation" for losses suffered. The Russian parliament then passed a law legalizing its claim to "works of art displaced by war" and negotiations between Russia and Germany ground to a halt.

Concessions made

Beutekunst

"Displaced" art on show

However, progress and concessions have been made. Germany has since returned two mosaics from the famous Amber Room from Catherine the Great's palace near St. Petersburg to their Russian owners. Russia responded by granting an export license for 101 drawings and engravings from the Bremen Kunsthalle, which had been handed over to the German Embassy in Moscow several years previously by a Red Army war veteran.

In April last year, the Russian parliament rushed through a bill allowing the return to Germany of medieval stained-glass windows that were looted by the Red Army at the end of World War II. It was seen as a gesture of goodwill timed to coincide with a trip to Germany by President Vladimir Putin.

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