Bremen Artworks' Twisted Tale

A Soviet World War II veteran struggles to return museum pieces looted from Germany

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor. The writers are both art historians, and Mr. Akinsha is the Moscow correspondent of ARTNews. The story they broke in 1991 earned the George Polk award for investigative journalism and an Overseas Press Club citation for excellence.

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.

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.

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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.

On May 5, 1945, the 38th Field Engineer Brigade of the Soviet Red Army was ordered to move to the town of Kiritz, about 40 miles north of Berlin. Looking for a place to set up camp, Baldin, a young brigade officer, came upon the castle of Kranzow, a picturesque building on a lakeshore, surrounded by a forest. After evicting its occupants, Count Konigsmark and his family, the brigade's senior officers occupied the castle. Baldin, along with other young officers and soldiers, lived in a tent in the forest.

On the morning of July 30, the brigade received orders to leave Kiritz. The same morning one of the officers came to Baldin's tent and informed him that soldiers had found some drawings in the castle cellar. Baldin, an architect by profession, was known among his comrades as an expert in fine arts. Intrigued by the story, Baldin hurried to the castle.

The floor of the cellar was covered by drawings mounted on cardboard passe-partout, or backing. A brief look was enough for Baldin to understand what kind of treasure was lying under his feet. On the passe-partout familiar names were printed: Titian, Rembrandt, Rubens, Durer, Van Gogh, Goya, Cezanne. The secret shelter in the castle cellar contained 1,520 artworks belonging to the collection of the Bremen Kunsthalle, evacuated to protect them from Allied bombing raids.

Baldin immediately visited his commander to inform him of the discovery. As he recounts, Baldin insisted that the drawings be saved and evacuated. The commander listened to the young officer's speech and then asked him: "How old are you?" Baldin replied that he was 25 years old. The commander invited him to the window and showed him the brigade's few trucks, overloaded with senior officers' loot. "And now get out of here," he told the young officer.

"I understood then that nobody would help me," Baldin says. "I returned to the cellar and began to sort out the drawings in the candlelight. As the drawings were mounted in a heavy Bristol cardboard, it was impossible to carry more than 10 of them. But there were hundreds of drawings. With my heart standing still, I began to carefully cut out the thin leaves of paper from the passe-partout. On the back side of every drawing I wrote the name of the artist. It was after midnight, the candle was burning dow n, but I was cutting and cutting.

"I had to leave many drawings there which I thought were not very important. But how was it possible to judge? I believed that everything left in the cellar would be destroyed.... I carried an armful of drawings into my hut in the forest and painstakingly packed them in one of my valises."

On the way home Baldin enriched his collection. The trucks transporting the brigades were decorated with drawings taken from the cellar by the soldiers. They were all of one type - sketches of nude women. Baldin exchanged these "pinup girls" drawn by Tiepolo, Rodin, and other famous artists, for German wristwatches, belts, and other minor trophies.

Baldin sacrificed a pair of perfect German boots for a Salvator Mundi painting by Durer. "Those boots were very good," Baldin recalls nostalgically.

After returning home, Baldin continued his career as an architect, taking part in the restoration of the Holy Trinity monastery not far from Moscow. In 1947 he decided to donate the collection of drawings to the Museum of Architecture in Moscow.

The drawings remained in storage until many years later when, ironically, Baldin was appointed director of the museum. From the moment of his appointment, he began a crusade to return the drawings to Bremen.

Baldin began to write letters to Soviet leaders trying to convince them that the masterpieces must be returned to their owners. He sent messages to all Soviet rulers from Leonid Brezhnev to Mikhail Gorbachev but never received a reply.

The last letter was addressed to Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

"Don't lose a chance to use this situation and don't listen to those people who are trying to prevent this step," Baldin wrote Yeltsin. "I am an old soldier and a museum curator. Before the end of my days I want to be sure that the unique drawings saved by me during the war are returned to the real owner - the museum of the city of Bremen - and become accessible to the public, to researchers, and are returned again to the culture of the world."

On September 13, 1991, Yeltsin scrawled his decision on Baldin's letter: "It would be just and politically beneficial to return them."

But the collection was not to be yielded so easily. At the same time, with the clear backing of the Soviet Ministry of Culture, a defamation campaign against Baldin was launched. Rather than a savior, Baldin was labeled in numerous newspaper articles as an "art thief."

Finally, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the pressure from Germany and other nations led to the opening of the Bremen exhibit on November 18, 1992.

The exhibition included an additional surprise - besides the drawings removed by Baldin, the exposition included eight works from the same collection, among them six drawings by Durer. All these drawings were from the secret depository of the Hermitage, which includes more than 100 drawings from Bremen, donated or sold to the museum by soldiers who visited the famous cellar at the same time as Baldin.

While Mikhail Petrovsky, director of the Hermitage, finally included in the exhibition "classified" drawings by Durer, other museum directors are not hurrying to reveal their secrets. According to documents uncovered in Moscow archives, a number of other Bremen works are still held in the Pushkin Museum's secret depository. In addition, according to reliable sources, some drawings from Bremen are being secretly held in provincial museums.

Museums are not the only hiding places. In 1978, Felix Vishnevsky, a well-known Russian private collector, died in Moscow. His collection was of such great value that the Soviet Ministry of Culture delivered a special report on it to the Department of Culture of the Soviet Communist Party Central Committee.

Among other treasures listed in the report as belonging to Vishnevsky were some trophy masterpieces, including paintings by Cranach, Giordano, and Klinger, looted from German museums such as the Dresden Gallery and the National Gallery in Berlin. On the list were 25 drawings from Bremen, including works by Durer and Rembrandt.

The fate of these works is not known. After the death of Vishnevsky's widow, the collection was bequeathed to her son Evgeny and to Valentin Falin, an influential Communist Party apparatchik and former Soviet ambassador to West Germany, who finished his career as head of the international department of the party's Central Committee. Mr. Falin was a close friend and apparently a protector of Vishnevsky.

Baldin remembers that in the mid-1970s he visited the powerful Falin, trying to find support for his plan to return the drawings to Germany. Falin told him at that time of the presence of Bremen drawings in Vishnevsky's collection.

There is also evidence that Vishnevsky was not the only private collector who came into possession of drawings found by the soldiers of the 38th Brigade in the cellar of the castle of Kranzow. According to reliable sources, one organized crime group in St. Petersburg has some drawings with Bremen seals. Part of them were secretly exported to Germany at the end of the 1970s, while others remain in the hands of alleged criminals.

It may still be possible to find in some provincial city of Russia a couple of watercolors by Durer, worth millions of dollars, looted from the castle of Kranzow by some of Baldin's comrades-in-arms.

The prospect is tantalizing enough that not only Russian mafiosi, but also German museum curators, are hunting for them.

As Baldin sat in his Moscow apartment, his recollections were interrupted at one point by his wife. "Oh, Victor," she said, "why did you choose that castle for the camp, why did you take those drawings? You created so many problems for yourself, for Russians, for Germans...."

A slight smile crossed Baldin's face. "You are right," he answered.

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