A new exhibition in Moscow marking the 60th anniversary of the end of WWII has reignited a nagging argument between Germany and Russia over looted art.
The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow opened its doors Tuesday for an exhibition entitled "Archeology of War: Return from Nonbeing," which features pieces from Ancient Greece, Cyprus, Italy, as well as Etruscan vases, sculptures, terracotta, bronze articles, carved bone and architectural fragments.
The high-profile show has outraged Germany's art community -- although it's largely based on Russia's collection of art looted from Germany in the final throes of World War II, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation was uninvolved in the project and was refused access to Russian's depots of German art treasures.
Some 350 of the antiques displayed, restored over a period of five years by a team of Russian experts, originally came from Berlin collections, which were stored in bunkers in the city center during the war and blown up by the SS as the Red Army approached in 1945. When special "trophy commissions" made up of Red Army experts -- whose official mission was to look for cultural property stolen by the Nazis -- began removing and transporting art treasures from Germany back to the Soviet Union, these fragments went with them.
The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation in Berlin has been vocal in its criticism of the exhibition. But the Pushkin Museum insists that according to international law on restitution of works of art looted during armed conflicts, the pieces belong to Russia.
It isn't the first time exhibitions of so-called "trophy art" from Germany have taken place in St. Petersburg and Moscow. In November 1992, the Hermitage (photo) showed drawings from the Bremen Kunsthalle and most of the objects were exhibited again in Moscow in March 1993.
The perceived recalcitrance of Russia's museums was underscored by the fact that on Tuesday, the same day the latest exhibition opened, the foundation symbolically returned a work of 17th century art to Russia as a gesture of reconciliation.
"Russia's behavior is seriously straining our relationship and is highly detrimental to the position of Germany's museum directors," said Christina Weiss, State Secretary for Media and Culture.
The German Government has been trying to reclaim its cultural property from Russia for some 15 years, including the restitution of almost 200,000 works of art, two million books and about three kilometers of files.
For years, Russian authorities denied it was keeping secret spoils in special depots, while simultaneously maintaining that its German cultural property was legitimately owned as reparations.
Then, in 1992, the promising German-Russian Treaty of Cultural Cooperation was expected to usher in a new era of amicability, but by the mid-1990s the restitution negotiations had caved in to opposition from influential Russian political sectors rejecting the restitution claims, as well as pressure from nationalistic groups championing the right of the Russian people to German cultural property as indemnity for its 30 million dead and the suffering and atrocities Russia had to endure through Nazi aggression.
As Günter Nooke from the Christian Democrats pointed out in an interview with the Berliner Zeitung, the issue provides a stark contrast to the upbeat state of German-Russian relations touted by Chancellor Schröder and President Putin.
"This is a political standstill," he said. "The cultural property must be returned, and compensation negotiations are out of the question."