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Art: Treasure Returned

2 minute read

“We are glad that the forces of the heroic Soviet army saved these invaluable treasures from ruin,” trumpeted Soviet Deputy Minister of Culture Kaftanov at a full-dress ceremony in Moscow’s Pushkin Museum last fortnight. In reply, East German Foreign Minister Lothar Bolz oozed gratitude. And well he might. In an unprecedented gesture of turnabout, the Soviets had decided to hand back a portion of one of the richest cargoes of loot picked up in World War II: Dresden’s famed $17 million collection of masterpieces, including 24 Van Dycks, 34 important paintings by Rembrandt and Rubens, paintings by Tintoretto, Velasquez, Vermeer, Poussin, Correggio’s Holy Night and Raphael’s famed Sistine Madonna.

Dresden’s collection, declared Foreign Minister Bolz, was saved only “through wise decisions by Soviet commanders who, even in battle, never forgot treasures of art.” In a way Bolz was right. Along with the first Red army tanks to roll into Dresden, on May 8, 1945, were carloads of Russian art experts. Outside the city a favor-seeking Nazi handed them a master list of art treasures and their hiding places. The grateful Russians took the list, offered the informer a drink, then shot him. Three months later, long caravans of open Russian trucks started carting the art treasures away. For a decade their exact whereabouts was a Soviet state secret.

Last May, 750 of Dresden’s famed paintings came out of hiding when the new Soviet regime decided to let the Russians have a look at them before sending them home. Russian gallerygoers queued up as early as 4 a.m. in front of the Pushkin Museum; once inside, they snatched up all of the 275,000 guide books and catalogues, bought 130,000 copies of the Sistine Madonna alone.

Back in East Berlin last week, the returning German delegation announced jubilantly that the 750 paintings would first go on show in November at Berlin’s National Museum and be back in Dresden’s Sempersche Gemlädegalerie by next June. As to the 987 missing paintings and the collections of etchings, statues and coins that Western art experts believe the Soviets took, East Germans made it clear Big Brother was not to be held responsible. Said Foreign Minister Bolz blandly: “The vandalism of the Hitler regime and the Anglo-American air raids on places of culture and art have . . . robbed the German people of invaluable treasure.”

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