AFTER half a century of secrecy, three paintings from a cache of 74 masterpieces stolen by Soviet soldiers from Nazi Germany were unveiled at the Hermitage Museum Thursday as a prelude to its full exhibition next month.
The collection of French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, which will be exhibited for the first time in St. Peterburg beginning March 30, includes a work by Van Gogh valued at $15 million, as well as pieces by Picasso, Gauguin, Renoir, Matisse, Cezanne, Degas.
``It's a known collection, which ... has been out of sight for a long time, and it is marvelous that it is reappearing,'' says James Roundell, head of Christie's Impressionist department in London.
Hidden deep within the Hermitage's vaults, the ``trophy art'' was confiscated from Germany in 1945 by Soviet troops as revenge on Adolf Hitler's attempts to plunder Soviet art.
Most of the pieces in the exhibition, ``Unknown Masterpieces of French Painting,'' were taken from the private collection of German businessman Otto Krebs, whose estate near Weimar, Germany, was seized by Russian Army Gen. Vasily Chuikov.
When General Chuikov finally went back to Russia, Krebs's 98-piece art collection went with him. Little is known about the industrialist, who has died, but it is expected that his family could make claims on the paintings.
Estimates say more than 2 million objets d'art were taken from Germany during World War II, most of which were presumed destroyed in bombing raids. The bulk was returned to East Germany in the 1950s, but the most valuable items remain locked in Russian museums.
``The first public exhibition will probably not be a good moment,'' Mr. Roundell predicts. ``This is definitely something on a political level, rather than on a purely artistic one. We are talking many millions [of dollars] because we are talking major pictures.''
Grigory Kozlov, one of two journalists who broke the story of Russia's secret repositories in 1991, says that nobody knows what will happen to the paintings.
``Even in Russia there is no single opinion about what to do with them,'' he says. ``The Germans want them back, and there are even plans to divide them 50-50. But those are all just plans.''
Some Russians believe Russia deserves to keep the booty as war compensation. But Viktor Baldin, a retired museum director who oversaw the shipping of art from Germany to Russia after the war, says all stolen treasures should be returned. ``Fifty years have gone by, and we should get back art which was ours from Germany and America, and give back the art we have taken. We should end the war,'' he says.
A commission of German and Russian museum directors will try to hammer out ownership.