WHEN asked if the Pushkin Museum in Moscow ever purchased art looted by Russian officers from Germany during World War II, Pushkin director Irina Antonova last month at first pleaded ignorance.
Only a while later did she come clean. ``Yes, we bought them,'' she admitted, adding defiantly, ``but it was to save them.''
Some of those pieces, thought destroyed during the war but secretly held by the Russians, go on exhibit for the first time in St. Petersburg Feb. 9. The 74-masterpiece exhibit is a significant attempt by Russia to open both its vaults of stolen art and further an emotional worldwide dialogue on the issue of displacement of cultural property during war.
``While carting off or destroying a country's cultural heritage has always been a part of warfare, it has become especially common in the 20th century because of a heightened sense of nationalism,'' said Jonathan Petropoulos, assistant professor of history, Loyola College in Baltimore.
And it's still going on. ``Saddam Hussein sent in art experts to Kuwait and removed cultural property from museums and palaces,'' Dr. Petropoulos said.
In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge looted and vandalized the ancient temple of Angkor Wat. In Afganistan, the National Museum in the capital Kabul was bombed and looted last year in civil war fighting, destroying one of the finest collections of early Indian art, he said. The Balkan war has also been hard on cultural property.
But despite the 1907 Hague Convention prohibiting such actions, the greatest organized looting of cultural property in modern history occurred during World War II. Fifty years later, the loss of artwork still rankles.
At a three-day conference in January sponsored by Bard College's Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, in Manhattan, art scholars and government officials from the United States and many European countries spoke openly for the first time about the taking of treasures and the possibility of their return.
Russians: just compensation
Mrs. Antonova's reluctant response at this conference reflects a divided opinion among Russians over the art spoils: Some argue that the artworks are just compensation for the killing of 20 million Russians. Others say that it's a new era; in the interests of being an effective player in the new Europe, Russia must give the art back.
The exchange between Antonova and the journalist, Konstantin Akinsha, who first broke the story of Russia's secret repositories in the New York-based ArtNews magazine in 1991, shows that missing artworks prevent the wounds of war from healing.
When the Nazis made their inexorable march across Europe, they confiscated from museums and private collections virtually the entire cultural heritage of Europe: paintings; royal insignia; tapestries; medieval manuscripts; jewelry; rare books; musical instruments; traditional costumes; church bells; furniture; and objects of gold, silver, porcelain, bronze, and pewter.
From the Netherlands, they took 11 shipments. ``One collection alone, the Biblioteca Rosenthaliana (Jewish library), took up 153 crates. It was later found hidden in a brick kiln in Germany,'' said Josefine Leistra, of the Netherlands Office for Fine Arts.
Hitler had plans to build the largest museum in the world and much art was taken for that.
During the war, great efforts were made to hide or protect artwork. Many paintings were stored in thousands of mountain repositories as well as in salt mines during Allied bombing.
In France, ``The Mona Lisa and 3,000 other paintings moved several times in trucks amid refugee-clogged roads constantly being bombed,'' said Lynn Nicholas, co-organizer of the conference and author of ``The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe's Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War.'' (Alfred A. Knopf, 1994)
Later, the Russians took much of what the Nazis had gotten, ending up with an estimated 2.5 million items.
Entire inventories of museums, libraries, and collections were seized; among them legendary gold treasures from Troy; paintings by Durer, El Greco, Goya, Monet, Renoir, Degas, Cezanne, and Van Gogh.
In a revelation that surprised many, Mr. Akinsha said that Stalin, like Hitler, had wanted to create a ``supermuseum,'' and had made plans as early as 1943 to collect for it. Lists were drawn up of specific artworks from various countries that would be taken when the Nazis fell.
``Enormous numbers of people were involved,'' said Alexei Rastorgouev, associate professor of art history at Moscow University. Much went into private hands as well. ``Each soldier had the right to take back a certain amount of baggage. For generals, it was train carloads.
``Only being acquired saved them from being sold or damaged,'' he insisted. ``There's nothing shameful in that for me.''
After the war ended, special US officers returned many thousands of works of art to their owners ( See European Art below ). But other US soldiers couldn't resist the temptation to bring home booty. And as these soldiers die, more artwork is coming on the market.
Texas Lt. Joe Tom Meador took from a church in Quedlinburg a small collection of items, including a 1,000 year-old illuminated Samuhel Gospels manuscript. After Mr. Meador died, his brother and sister attempted to assess the value of the objects. Despite reporters and various officials dogging their heels, they were able to negotiate a $3 million ``finder's fee'' from a German cultural foundation.
While the Soviet Union returned some 1.5 million pieces of art to the East Germans in the late '50s, they kept many pieces. With the end of the cold war and the beginning of glasnost, the Russians and the Germans again began to talk about their return and signed two agreements in in 1990 and 1992. But observers say not much has come back.
``Four years [after the discovery of the secret repositories] most of the art is still there. I thought by now that they would be back in their respective countries,'' said the journalist, Akinsha.
``The Russians have a growing tendency to mark time,'' said Armin Hiller, head of international policy division, German ministry of foreign affairs. ``How is Russia going to integrate itself in the European Union where cultural identity is indispensable and following the rule of law is critical?''
The Russians are making some attempts to move things along. A draft of a law regarding restitution is due to be finished soon. Scholars have been allowed to view items previously hidden. And the exhibit at the Hermitage of the previously hidden Impressionist paintings is perhaps the biggest step.
A pilot project of a return of 13,500 books from Moscow's All-Russia State Library for Foreign Literature to the Berlin Library is almost complete, said Ekaterina Genieva, director general of the Russian library. ``The problems of restitution of books which could make us enemies has made us friends,'' Mrs. Genieva said. ``We shall build this house together.''