1992: Hunt for painted prisoners of war.
In 1992, the hunt was on for so-called “Trophy Art”, paintings and other artifacts that Soviet forces looted from Berlin at the end of World War II. Had the treasures all been German, the scandal might not have been so great. But many were European masterpieces that the Nazis had grabbed from collections in occupied countries, such as Holland. The West hoped that newly independent Russia would come clean about the hidden pictures and return them to their rightful owners.
Two art historians, Konstantin Akinsha and Grigory Kozlov, first blew the whistle on Russian museums that were holding the treasures in dark vaults, keeping them from public view. The authorities flatly denied that thousands of priceless works by artists from Durer and Rembrandt to Goya and Manet were in Russia, having been taken from Berlin by Stalin’s special confiscation squads, as well as ordinary soldiers helping themselves to “souvenirs”.
I got a tip-off that the long-lost Koenigs Collection of Old Master drawings, sold under duress to the Nazis by a Rotterdam museum, was being kept at Glebov’s House, home to the Pushkin Museum’s department of graphics.
“Oh yes, they’re here, they’re definitely here,” a young curator told me pleasantly. “I’ll just fetch the Dutch expert for you.” Two minutes later, the woman returned with a stony face and said: “No, there’s nothing here. You misunderstood.”
I felt the thrill of the chase.
The story developed when a video came to light, showing 17th and 18th century French paintings hanging at Uzkoye, a sanatorium on the edge of Moscow enjoyed by scientists from the Academy of Sciences. I went to the estate, which had once belonged to Prince Trubetskoy, and pretended an interest in the Russian aristocracy. The manager wouldn’t let me in, for fear of disturbing the scientists, but she did walk with me in the grounds.
She volunteered the information that the local church contained rare books from German libraries. “Oh really,” I said, “and I’ve heard that you also have French paintings in the main house.” She was aghast. “Where did you get that information from? I don’t like the look of this. There’s too much interest in those pictures. I won’t tell you anything.”
That really whetted my appetite.
Then Akinsha and Kozlov came up with documentary proof that ancient gold, excavated from the site of Troy by the 19th century German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann and before the war exhibited in Berlin, was among the plundered treasures in Moscow. They gave me access to the inventory that accompanied the crates of gold from Germany and a paper confirming receipt in Moscow, signed by a certain Lapin on 9 July 1945.
This was dynamite. And still the authorities were denying everything. Of course, I was desperate to find some trophy art myself.
By chance, I attended a wedding. It was a fashionable affair and the bride and groom, film makers with an eye for Soviet kitsch, had hired a Palace of Culture in the countryside outside Moscow for their reception.
The guests mingled among potted palms or played billiards in what was effectively a country club. I wandered into a ground floor sitting room and saw two fine landscapes hanging on the wall.
I didn’t recognise the pictures but asked the director, a cheerful old Communist called Vladimir Davidov, where they came from. “Oh, that’s trophy art, taken from Germany at the end of the war,” he said without batting an eyelid. “I got them from Uzkoye when this club was built in 1954 and we needed something to decorate the walls.”
He allowed me back to photograph the paintings, which were later identified by experts as Vespasian’s Temple in Rome and The Narni Valley by Wilhelm Schirmer, a German romantic artist who lived in Italy in the 19th century.
It was becoming difficult for the Russian authorities to stonewall any longer. And they had their point of view, too. The Nazis had destroyed much of Russian cultural heritage during their occupation of Soviet territory. Russian treasures, such as icons, that had found their way to Germany had been sold on the open market, making it virtually impossible that they would ever be returned. Surely Russia deserved some compensation, they said.
In October 1992, the Russian Culture Minister, Yevgeny Sidorov, admitted the existence of the trophy art and invited the Dutch ambassador, Joris Vos, to see the Koenigs Collection.
It would be another three years before the Pushkin Museum put on an exhibition of trophy art entitled Saved Twice Over. Director Irina Antonova said the world should be grateful to the confiscation squads who “saved” the paintings from the ruins of Berlin, handing them over to museum staff, who “saved” them again through painstaking restoration.
Did the trophy art then go back to Western Europe? In fact, not; most of it is still in Russia. In 2004 Ukraine, which was holding half of the Koenigs Collection, did return its drawings to The Netherlands but the rest remain in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, their fate still “under consideration” by a very slow-moving Russia.