As a married German couple strolls through the art museum of Simferopol in Crimea during autumn 2008, the husband is suddenly wide awake: exhibited before his eyes are paintings from his homeland - and more than just a few.
Back at the Suermondt Ludwig Museum in Aachen, a daring, even sensational exhibit is on: black-and-white photographs of paintings lost at the end of World War II. The paintings were possibly taken to Russia by the Red Army. The Aachen museum was not aware of the whereabouts of the original paintings until it got a tip from that German couple.
Venus in Vulcan's Smithy
After that happened, things started to move quickly. Aachen's museum director Peter van den Brink traveled several times to Simferopol to visit his colleague Larina Kudryashova and the paintings. The Crimean museum has 76 works from 19th century German painters, and from Dutch and Flemish painters of the 17th century. The centerpiece is 2 by 2.5 meters: Venus in Vulcan's Smithy by Hendrik de Clerck.
At that time, the German-Russian and German-Ukraine discussion over looted art had nearly come to a standstill. Some 200,000 museum objects from Germany - nobody knows exactly how many - are still in Russia. Germany's looted art from Russia is mostly in private collections, and appears from time to time on auctions - although the works remain difficult to sell.
It would be a stretch to call the discussion on looted art an actual dialogue. Germany has at times categorically demanded the return of looted art, which Russia recalcitrantly refused. And there have been gestures of goodwill in between. Ukraine did take the conciliatory step of returning musical scores of historic importance by Bach.
"We came up with a very unconventional proposal to try and have overcome the impasse," said Peter van den Brink. "The idea was that we'd want to get five paintings back in Aachen. We wanted to trade them for five artworks, which we offered Simferopol as a present."
The art of compromise
And that swap would have involved a painting especially important for Aachen: "The Aachen Cathedral" by Johann Gottfried Pulian (black-and-white photo pictured at top). "For many people in Aachen, this painting is a symbol of the loss of art to the former Soviet Union," van den Brink said. That piece isn't all that valuable on the market, he pointed out. "But for Aachen, it is valuable because it depicts the cathedral."
Van den Brink's concept involved 71 works of Crimean looted art remaining on permanent loan in Simferopol. In this way, the Ukrainians would acknowledge the German ownership of the artworks, but they could still keep them.
Looted art as ambassador
"An exceptionally good idea!" said Wolfgang Eichwede. The Eastern Europe history researcher is one of Germany's leading experts on looted art. Years ago, he demanded a rethink: Forget about the idea that all looted art should be returned.
There are too many things that work against this, he argued, such as Germany's blame for World War II and the gridlocked positions on both sides. He proposed that looted art could become an ambassador for Germany in Russia by the way of permanent loans and donations.
In October last year, the Simferopol museum seemed as though it would accept the offer, van den Brink said. "We received an invitation to come to Kyiv in May to speak with the minister of culture," he said.
But since Russia annexed Crimea, the Aachen Cathedral painting became Russian state property under a Russian law from 1998. Unless something significant changes, van den Brink's idea won't be implemented.
"At the moment a Russian-German dialogue does not exist," said Eichwede. This is also due to the Russian culture minister regarding the looted art problem as settled.
"Things are much more difficult with the Russians," van den Brink confirmed. "It depends much more on Putin's desire to demonstrate goodwill toward Germany."
Willingness to dialogue
So the idea van den Brink's idea has not ended the German-Ukrainian and German-Russian standstill, after all. But still, lessons were learned: abstain from ultimatums, talk to each other and to retain a willingness to compromise.
"We will only make progress when we accept that our partners of the former Soviet Union - Ukraine and Russia - also had enormous losses," Eichwede pointed out. "I hope that the current attempt to establish a new dialogue between the EU and Ukraine will lead to new opportunities regarding looted art," he concluded.