Russia's 50-Year Secret Earns Warm Response Amid Ongoing Dispute

Masterpieces by Renoir, Monet, Degas, Van Gogh, and others debut at Hermitage

THE ownership of 74 masterpieces displayed by the Hermitage museum may be disputed, but no one is quarreling over the condition and quality of most of the Impressionist and PostImpressionist paintings.

The exhibit, ''Hidden Treasures Revealed,'' opened to the public March 31 in the former palace of the Russian czars.

The title only hints at the controversy surrounding the exhibition.

All but one of the paintings came from private collections, spirited out of Germany by Soviet soldiers after the surrender of the Nazis in 1945. Before 1991, Soviet leaders denied that Moscow possessed the paintings.

The works were kept in secret vaults, their existence known only to a few people. Then came communism's collapse in 1991. The state secret was revealed and the art world has been clamoring for a look ever since.

Out of sight has not meant out of mind, as far as preservation of the paintings was concerned, says Hermitage director Mikhail Piotrovsky.

All the works are in brilliant condition, their stark colors making a strong impression. ''They have been better preserved than works that are always on view, constantly exposed to light,'' Mr. Piotrovsky insists.

Piotrovsky is backed up in his assertion not only by art experts, but by descendants of the German art collectors from whom the works were taken.

''Before the opening, everybody in my family was worried about the condition of the art, considering the climate. But I think the show is done well and we are pleased,'' says Sebastian von Johnston, a grandson of Friedrich Karl Siemens, turnofthecentury art collector and driving force behind the Siemens industrial conglomerate. Several Siemens family members attended the exhibition's opening ceremonies.

Impressionist Who's Who

''For my mother, it was a touching moment,'' Mr. Von Johnston says. ''She could remember where the paintings were hung -- in what room at the family house in Berlin.

''She had a chance to relive her childhood. As for me, they were more beautiful than I expected,'' he says.

Only two Siemens paintings were included in the Hermitage show; ''Interior With Two People'' by Degas and ''Flowers'' by Delacroix. The bulk of the exhibition -- 60 of the 74 works -- came from the collections of Otto Krebs and Otto Gerstenberg.

Many of the works have never before been shown in public. And although art critics count a few ''duds'' among the show, most paintings are top drawer.

The list of painters included in the exhibit reads like a Who's Who from the Impressionist era: Van Gogh, Monet, Manet, Degas, Cezanne, and Seurat. There is also a Picasso and a Matisse. Renoir is the most represented painter with 15 canvases, including ''In the Garden.''

Collectively the paintings could be worth up to a halfbillion dollars, estimates Milton Esterow, the editor and publisher of ArtNews magazine.

Among the most notable works are Van Gogh's ''White House at Night'' -- completed shortly before the Dutch painter's suicide -- and Seurat's ''Fort Samson.'' The best canvas is considered Degas's ''Place de la Concorde,'' painted in 1875. If it appeared on the auction block, the work could perhaps fetch $100 million, Mr. Esterow says.

But because of the lingering ownership dispute, it's unlikely that any of works will leave the Hermitage soon, either to be auctioned, or to travel in further exhibitions.

German authorities, citing two treaty commitments, are pressing the Russian government to return the art to the original owners or their families. The Russian parliament, however, is considering legislation to nationalize the art.

Gerstenberg descendants have retained a Russian lawyer to press their legal case to regain ownership. Meanwhile, von Johnston, the Siemens grandson, has expressed confidence that the German Foreign Ministry will reach a deal with the Russian government.

Piotrovsky says that the exhibition could promote compromise. ''It can be easier to agree when the works in question can be seen by all,'' he says. The Hermitage director has quietly pressed for a resolution of the dispute, hoping that a settlement would provide a boost to the museum's grand renovation plans.

In an effort to foster goodwill, Piotrovsky invited descendants of the collectors to the opening. And in a private meeting with Siemens family members on March 31, Piotrovsky showed them a Manet once owned by Friedrich Siemens, and now in Hermitage hands, but not part of the curent exhibit. Von Johnston maintains the Hermitage possesses up to 11 works from the Siemens collection.

Seeking a settlement

''We have reason to be optimistic,'' von Johnston says about chances for a settlement. ''But there are certain things that he [Piotrovsky] can't decide and there are things we can't decide.''

''The Russians want a 5050 split, but this is unacceptable to us. We'll keep talking,'' he continues.

If some, or all of the works return to Germany, Siemens family members haven't decided what they would do with their masterpieces.

''I don't know if I'd want a Degas in my home,'' von Johnston says. ''I'd need insurance that would cost a fortune.''

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