Old faithful claim Honecker's art: Political heirs of the former East German leader refuse to hand over his tasteless art collection, writes Adrian Bridge in Berlin

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A ROGUES' gallery of paintings depicting Communist heroes is at the centre of a bizarre ownership battle in Berlin.

The pictures, which in addition to obligatory portraits of Marx and Lenin include a grotesque oil painting on wild-boar skin of the former East German leader, Erich Honecker, are stashed away in a small room in the Berlin headquarters of eastern Germany's reformed Communist PDS party. Most are so kitsch that not even loyal party stalwarts want them on the walls.

Now, however, officials from the government-appointed Treuhand privatisation agency are trying to get their hands on them. They question the legality of the PDS's retention of the collection, and have ordered the party to hand it over immediately - or face the courts.

'Of all the issues to pick a fight over, this must be one of the most ridiculous,' fumes Dietmar Bartsch, the PDS treasurer, who has requisitioned a portrait of Karl Marx for his office. 'None of these pictures is worth anything anyway. But we are determined to keep them.'

Ownership is the principal bone of contention. The PDS maintains that the art works - more than 400 in all - were presented to the party by East German artists who were committed to the cause, or were personal gifts to Mr Honecker from visiting heads of fellow Socialist states.

The wild-boar skin portrait, they point out, was a present to Mr Honecker, a keen hunter, from the former Ethiopian president, Mengistu Haile Mariam, in 1989. The portraits of Fidel Castro arrived from the Cuban leader. The Socialist Realist works, portraying idealised steel workers and the founding fathers of the East German state, were given to the party, PDS officials say. 'Many of the artists involved believed - and still believe - in the party and want to support it,' Mr Bartsch says. 'They would not want to see their works going elsewhere. Some would even demand them back.'

The Treuhand insists that it should take charge of the collection pending a ruling by an independent commission, set up by the last East German government to examine property questions relating to the country's former parties. Angry agency officials dismiss the PDS's protests as 'absurdist theatre'.

While the outcome of the dispute is uncertain, culture ministers from the five eastern German Lander (regional states) are due to meet soon, to discuss what to do with thousands of other art works bequeathed by East Germany's former political parties.

Some suggest they should be kept in storage, to be used for research purposes. Others say the best examples should be put on display, as part of an exhibition entitled 'Art from the Totalitarian Systems of the 20th century'.

(Photograph omitted)