Germany and Russia on Monday discussed the return of "trophy art" seized by the Soviet Union after World War II. Still, Berlin has little hope of recovering a priceless Rubens painting owned by a Russian businessman.
Berlin says the painting was stolen
The atmosphere was "good" when German Culture Secretary Christina Weiss and her Russian counterpart Alexander Solokov talked about the issue of trophy art, according to news agency ddp. But it may make no difference in the case of Rubens' masterpiece "Tristan and Lucretia."
"The painting is the most important work missing from the collection of Berlin's museum and gardens foundation," a spokesman for Weiss said Monday. "We would like it back."
Weiss said over the weekend the government was considering taking private legal action in Russia to recover the canvas Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens painted of the mythological rape of Lucretia between 1609 and 1612. A legal assessment commissioned by Weiss had determined that Russian businessman Vladimir Logvinenko was not the work's rightful owner.
Until 1942 the painting hung in Sanssouci Palace in Potsdam, near Berlin: Prussian King Frederick the Great had bought it in 1765 for his collection. Subsequently it may have adorned the walls of the country mansion of Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister. After the Red Army's victory over the Nazis, the painting is thought to have been plundered by a Soviet officer. The man brought the masterpiece to Russia and hung it on his living room wall.
Russia accepts stealing
Not only was plundering common after World War II, but both the Soviet state and, in 1997, the Russian parliament declared that trophy art appropriated from Germany legally belonged to the war's victors. However, private plundering was never sanctioned.
Logvinenko insists he is the painting's rightful owner, having bought it from an antique dealer in 1999, a stance that was confirmed by Russia's prosecutor general earlier this year. A court in Germany ruled in October that the government had not shown enough evidence to prove the painting was stolen.
Trophy art has been an issue between Germany and Russia for years, and despite Berlin's efforts and occasional expressions of good will from Moscow, only a handful of the two million books, one million artwork and three kilometers of artifacts Germany believes to be in Russian hands have been returned.
Schröder and Putin met Monday in Hamburg
Thus, the cards appear to be stacked against Weiss recovering the Rubens, even if she does pursue legal action in Russia unless Chancellor Gerhard Schröder takes up the issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin. So far, though, he hasn't made any indication he will. Experts value "Tristan and Lucretia" at around €80 million ($107 million). The painting had long been considered lost when Logvinenko offered to sell it to the Foundation for Prussian Palaces and Gardens in Feb. 2003.