Moscow admits it holds stolen Old Masters

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The Independent Online
AFTER half a century of bare-faced lying, Russia has admitted that a Dutch collection of Old Master drawings was among thousands of works of art taken from the defeated Nazis and brought to Moscow to lie in vaults hidden from the Soviet people for whom this trophy-taking was supposed to be war compensation.

The new Russian Minister of Culture, Yevgeny Sidorov, told Dutch television last week that the Koenigs collection, taken from Rotterdam by the Germans before being seized by the Russians when they entered Berlin in 1945, had been 'found' in Moscow, although he would not say where.

The presence of the collection has been an open secret among Russian museum workers for years. The director of Moscow's Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Irina Antonova, denied it but the drawings were almost certainly in her stores for decades. It is possible that they were moved to the monastery at Sergeyev Posad (formerly Zagorsk) when the press got too hot on the trail last year.

The Dutch ambassador to Moscow, Joris Vos, has been promised that he can see the drawings later this month after Mr Sidorov has examined them. The way would then be open for the collection, consisting of 492 works by masters from Durer to Watteau, and estimated to be worth pounds 60m, to be shown to the public. On the face of it, the Dutch have every right to the collection, but its final home will probably have to be negotiated.

The drawings were collected by Franz Koenigs, a German-Jewish banker who fled to Haarlem near Amsterdam in the Thirties. He sold them in 1940 to a museum in Rotterdam which re-sold them to Hans Posse, the man entrusted by Hitler with the task of scooping up European art for the planned Fuhrer Museum in Linz, Austria. The Rotterdam museum probably sold to Mr Posse under duress, but it is not essential to establish this, as the Dutch government-in-exile declared all deals with Nazi Germany invalid and the allies, including the Soviet Union, confirmed this.

Unlike other trophy art, which may have rotted in stores unsuitable for paintings and drawings, the Koenigs collection should be in good condition because it has probably spent most of its exile at the Pushkin, one of Russia's top museums, and also because each sketch came complete with its own case. When the collection is opened up, Mr Vos will not see all 492 drawings, but he will not be alarmed because he knows that about 30 were recovered piecemeal over the years. Some appeared on the world market, apparently because the KGB was trying to estimate their value, and the Dutch recovered them.

A little glasnost in the sphere of art has been made possible by the collapse of the Soviet Union and consequent departure of its Minister of Culture, Nikolai Gubenko, who took a hard line on the treasures because his parents were executed by the Nazis. But even President Yeltsin's appointee, Mr Siderov, is moving only cautiously towards opening up the rest of the art, mostly German, still hidden here. The issue is complicated because the Nazis looted thousands of treasures from Russian churches and palaces, and Moscow feels it cannot return German art without compensation.