Soviet loot -- stolen, destroyed, saved

October 01, 1995|By Antero Pietila | Antero Pietila,SUN STAFF

"Beautiful Loot: The Soviet Plunder of Europe's Art Treasures," by Konstantin Akinsha and Grigorii Kozlov with Sylvia Hochfield. New York: Random House. 300 pages. $25

The antiquities departments of the world's finest museums are full of artifacts that were acquired by means that would be both unusual and unethical today. Among warriors, Napoleon excelled in this kind of appropriation, Hitler continued it and Stalin perfected it by ordering the confiscation of more than 2.5 million art objects and books from defeated Germany at the end of World War II.

"It was the most prodigious secret removal of cultural property in human history, carefully organized and carried out by the Red Army and the Soviet military administration," write the authors of this fascinating and meticulously researched book.

As long as he was winning, Hitler dreamed of creating a grandiose art museum of looted art near his boyhood home in Austria. He instructed the Nazi troops to methodically loot museums and cultural institutions in occupied territories.

After the tide turned, Stalin ordered his experts to develop price and quality "equivalents" of the art works the Nazi war machine had destroyed or removed from the Soviet Union. Using original cataloges from German museums, they pinpointed those paintings, sculptures, gold and coin collections they wanted and assembled a task force to find them.

Members of that unit came from a broad segment of Soviet cultural life. Art historians wore majors' uniforms, a circus stage director was a lieutenant colonel. Anything of value - from theatrical costumes to musical instruments - was to be transported to the Soviet Union.

This book documents the difficulties of finding the loot. As the war moved closer to Germany, museums there were emptied and their treasures hidden in salt mines or bunkers. Many hiding places were destroyed or flooded. Innumerable irreplaceable objects were further damaged when they were rushed into the Soviet Union without having been stored or packaged properly.

An unexpected avalanche of stolen art from Germany was only the beginning of the problem for Soviet museums. The establishment of the "fraternal," communist German Democratic Republic produced such serious political complications that .

planned Soviet exhibits of the loot had to be canceled. The collections languished in Soviet museum cellars, often in bad conditions and uncataloged until nearly 1.6 million trophy items were returned to East Germany, starting in 1958.

What happened to the rest?

Thousands of other objects were destroyed or stolen. Of the remaining, some of the most valuable paintings - including works by Gauguin, van Gogh and Degas - were finally exhibited in St. Petersburg and Moscow after the collapse of communism. In contrast, neither the Troyan gold nor numismatic collections have been publicly shown.

There has been a lot of talk about returning the objects. So far, political differences between the new Russia and Germany have prevented their repatriation.

Antero Pietila, an editorial writer for The Sun, was the paper' Moscow correspondent from 1983 to 1988. A native of Finland, he received a masters degree from Southern Illinois University.

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