June 3, 2005

Artefacts from German Museums now in Russia

Posted at 8:11 am in Similar cases

After the Second World War Russia had accumulated a lot of artefacts that were previously in German Museums. Germany has requested them back for a long time, now Russia is further antagonising Germany by putting many of these items together in an exhibition. One does wonder though how legitimate all the original acquisitions of “valuable pieces of Greek, Italian, Cypriot and Etruscan art” by German Museums were.

The Moscow Times

Spoils of War
An exhibition of ancient artworks – once kept in Berlin museums, then seized by Soviet forces in 1945 – has revived an old dispute between Russia and Germany.
By Anna Malpas
Published: May 27, 2005

The statues and frescoes survived thousands of years, only to be smashed and burned in the aftermath of World War II. Now a collection of antiquities taken from Berlin by Red Army troops in 1945 has been restored and put on display in Moscow, opening up old wounds on both sides.

The exhibition at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts looks peaceful enough, with its glass cases of terracotta statuettes and 4th-century Coptic bone ornaments. But the information panels at the entrance take no prisoners. They explain that the exhibition is “dedicated to the 60th anniversary of the Great Patriotic War,” before listing the damage caused by Nazi forces in the Soviet Union: churches razed, museums plundered, priceless works of art systematically destroyed.

As for the artifacts on display — valuable pieces of Greek, Italian, Cypriot and Etruscan art that were once held in Berlin state museums — these were taken as “partial compensation for the irreparable damage caused by the Fascist occupiers.”

Titled “The Archeology of War. Return From Oblivion,” the exhibition features artworks that were brought to Moscow in soot-covered fragments in 1945. After laying in storage for five decades in Sergiyev Posad, a town 60 kilometers north of Moscow, the pieces were painstakingly restored over a period of five years. After the exhibition ends in October, the Pushkin Museum plans to put “all the best things” on permanent display, curator Lyudmila Akimova said last week.

The exhibition has sparked controversy in Germany. Just after it opened in April, the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine published interviews with three of the country’s top museum directors criticizing the stalemate over trophy art.

The issue is an longstanding sore point in Russian-German relations. Germany has insisted for years that artworks seized by Soviet forces should be returned. But according to Russian law, the state has the right to keep cultural valuables that were officially taken from Germany as restitution. The law does not apply to items that were looted by individual soldiers and officers, or that were initially confiscated from their rightful owners by the Nazi regime.

Speaking by telephone last week, Klaus-Dieter Lehmann — the president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, the umbrella organization for Berlin state museums — described the exhibition as “a big surprise in Germany.” He complained that the Russian side had not contacted German art experts before the exhibition, not even for help in the complex process of identifying the pieces.

“We thought that there was cooperation between the Pushkin Museum and the state museums in Berlin, and we didn’t hear about the preparation of this exhibition,” he said. “It was a secret.”

In Moscow, the exhibition’s curator said that she “couldn’t say anything” about the German reaction to the exhibition. “That’s for the leaders of our state,” Akimova said. “So far we haven’t heard anything.”

Akimova confirmed that the Pushkin Museum had not contacted German museums for help with identifying the artworks. She said she believed there were no catalogs published in prewar Germany that listed some of the items, such as the painted vases and terracotta statuettes.

According to Lehmann, however, German museums have regularly offered help with identifying the artworks, since they have all the necessary books and information. “We think it is better to do things together,” he said.

He also questioned the Russian version of the items’ history. According to the Pushkin Museum’s notes on the exhibition, the items were found in a bunker near the Berlin zoo that was blown up by SS troops on the eve of Germany’s capitulation. Lehmann believes that this bunker was not damaged by German forces. Instead, he asserted that the damage occurred later, when the artifacts were in Soviet hands.

“This building was handed over to the Red Army on May 2, 1945. It was not bombed and it was not damaged,” he said. “All the contents of this depot was taken away by the Red Army intact.”

Art treasures from Berlin museums were stored in two city bunkers, both of which were handed over undamaged, Lehmann said. This version was partially supported by Akimova, who said she had heard that there were two bunkers, one of which wasn’t bombed. But “no one can confirm it,” she added.

Lehmann suggested that the artworks were burned and broken by looters of different nationalities, who were able to enter the bunkers unhindered by the Red Army. One bunker had no electricity, he said, speculating that the fire damage may have been caused by flares left by thieves.

For Russian museum workers and restorers, the exhibition has been a labor of love. Lehmann, however, sees it as a sign of the failure of negotiations over trophy art. “After more than 50 years, all the collections are still hidden,” he said. “This exhibition shows how little has been achieved since the end of the war in 1945.”

“The Archeology of War. Return from Oblivion” (Arkheologiya Voiny. Vozvrashcheniye iz Nebytiya) runs to Oct. 2 at the Pushkin Museum of Fine
Arts, located at 12 Volkhonka. Metro Kropotkinskaya. Tel. 203-7998/9578.

Copyright C 2005 The Moscow Times. All rights reserved.

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