Bremen Artworks' Twisted Tale
A Soviet World War II veteran struggles to return museum pieces looted from Germany
WHEN Russian and German dignitaries gathered at the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg last fall for an exhibition, their attention was focused not on the masterpieces crowding the walls, but on an old man in military attire.Skip to next paragraph
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For ex-Red Army officer Victor Baldin, the show of drawings from Bremen, Germany was a personal victory in a long, and at times apparently hopeless, struggle. The story of Mr. Baldin's collection of works by such artists as Rembrandt, Rubens, Goya, Durer, Monet, and Van Gogh is a fascinating glimpse into Soviet concealment of art treasures plundered from occupied territory in World War II.
In fact, Baldin is only one of many former Soviet officers who looted more than 2-1/2 million works of art from Nazi Germany.
Baldin's tale, and that of the Bremen collection, is only one page out of a secret history that has just begun to be told in the last two years.
Baldin was a young Soviet army officer in the ruins of Germany in 1945 when he and his victorious fellow Red Army comrades carried the Bremen collection back home as a trophy of war. He spent much of the rest of his life trying to return the 360 drawings and two paintings to their rightful owners.
At the end of the war, Soviet authorities justified the looting of German museums, considering the action compensation for the Nazi destruction of the churches of Pskov and Novgorod, the czarist palaces on the outskirts of St. Petersburg, and the removal of thousands of artworks from museums in Nazi-occupied territories.
In the first years after the war, Soviet museum officials termed the seized art treasures legal trophies of war and even prepared expositions of the famous German collections. But with the cold war and the partition of Germany, information about the art became a state secret. The works were hidden in secret depositories created in many Soviet museums.
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev returned some of the art as part of a policy of support for East Germany. In 1956 the collection of the Dresden gallery was returned. A year later, another 1-1/2 million museum objects were sent back as a "gesture of good will" aimed at securing East German support for the Soviet invasion of Hungary.
But even after this, about half a million art works belonging to West German museums, private collections, and the museums of other European countries remained in Soviet hands. Among them was the legendary Trojan gold treasure excavated by Heinrich Schliemann, as well as paintings by Durer, El Greco, Goya, Daumier, Monet, Renoir, Degas, Cezanne, and Van Gogh.
Though rumors swirled for years about the existence of these treasures, their secret was not exposed until the writers revealed their existence in an April 1991 article in the American ARTnews magazine.
By the end of that autumn, under pressure from journalists, diplomats, and art historians, the Soviet Ministry of Culture finally admitted the existence of the special depositories. But the powerful ministry continued to insist that the artworks were just compensation for destroyed Soviet treasures.
In the summer of 1992, after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed a special decree establishing a State Commission on Restitution. But the process of return is slow, and Germany, the Netherlands, and other countries are still awaiting the return of their lost works.
Moreover, the repatriation of these masterpieces is complicated by the fact that many were not removed by the special brigades sent into occupied Berlin, but were looted by individual Soviet generals, officers, and soldiers. Thousands of valuable artworks still remain in private hands.
The twisted tale of the Bremen Kunsthalle collection more than illustrates the fate of many pieces of so-called trophy art.