Hermitage reveals lost masters

German treasures seized by Red Army to be seen for first time in 50 yea rs next month. Geraldine Norman had an exclusive preview

MAGNIFICENT paintings thought to have been destroyed during the Second World War, but, in fact, hidden from the world on the instructions of the Soviet authorities, were shown to the Independent on Sunday last week in a second-floor restoration studio of the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. The 74 paintings, which include masterpieces by Degas, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Picasso and Toulouse-Lautrec, belonged to German private collections before the war. They were seized by the Red Army in 1945, shipped back to Russia and given to the Hermitage.

Heirs of the former owners are challenging the Russians to return them and, though no official figure has been disclosed, an estimate of their value would be around £200m. "Ownership of the paintings is a political matter," Professor Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the Hermitage, told me. "It will be decided by a vote in the Russian parliament or by presidential decree."

Prof Piotrovsky, 50, was appointed director by decree of the Russian Prime Minister in 1992 and has breathed new openness and dynamism into the museum. He has organised an exhibition of the "Hidden Treasures" which is scheduled to open on 30 March. "While they are entries on secret lists, the paintings are only symbols of money," he told me. "The exhibition will turn them back into works of art - which can be appreciated irrespective of their ownership."

The identity of the paintings is to be officially revealed to the world press at a conference in Catherine the Great's theatre, beside the River Neva in St Petersburg, next Thursday but Prof Piotrovsky gave me a personal preview last week.

Still unframed, the paintings were stacked against the walls of the studio in the Romanov's old Winter Palace. A restorer prop-ped each masterpiece in turn on a red plush stool for our appreciation - an unusual and moving way to view great art.

The star turn is Degas' Place de la Concorde of 1875 with the artist's friend, Vicomte Lepic, his daughters and a dog in the foreground. It is a triumph of balance between space and figures.

Two Gauguins, painted on the artist's first visit to Tahiti in 1892, run the Degas close. Piti Teina ("The Two Sisters"), a study of two young girls, is completely unknown.

There are four Van Goghs, the finest being a small landscape of ploughed fields centred by a yellow house with a red roof which he painted in 1889.

There are seven Cezannes, including a fine study of bathers, a host of Renoirs of varying quality, six Monets, a dazzling Seurat landscape, a sensuous nude by Courbet, an Absinthe Drinker by Picasso, and a portrait of a Montmartre prostitute, Berthe la Sourde, by Toulouse-Lautrec.

While treasures from German museums were transported to Russia in bulk in 1945, most of the material was returned to Berlin, Dresden and other East German institutions in 1958. The secret storerooms of the Hermitage contain what Piotrovsky calls "the leftovers". It is only in the past two years that the existence of these stores has been admitted. During our conversation last week, he revealed what they possess.

There are 700 paintings, mostly decorative Old Masters of no exceptional quality; Impressionist graphics from the same German collections as the oils; drawings from the Bremen Kunsthalle; a group of silver objects, which "we think" came from palaces nearDresden; a big collection of oriental art from the Ostasiatische Museum in Berlin; important archaeological material excavated by Schliemann from Troy; sculptures from "various places" and some medieval stained glass from the Marienkirche in Frankfurt-am-Oder.

Roughly 85 per cent of the Impressionist paintings come from the collection of a German manufacturer of boilers called Otto Krebs who lived in Holzdorf, near Weimar, and died in 1941. In 1945 his home was turned into a Soviet military headquarters and the paintings were removed to Russia. Krebs died childless but a medical foundation in Mannheim which he endowed, the Stiftung fur Krebs-und-Scharlachforschung, is claiming ownership of the paintings. Several have turned out to be fakes; a dud Toulouse-Lautrec nearly made it into the exhibition.

In contrast, the small group of paintings from the collection of Otto Gerstenberg, a turn-of-the-century insurance magnate, are all masterpieces. They include the Degas Place de la Concorde, three Renoirs, and a Daumier.

Gerstenberg died in 1935, leaving the collection to his daughter, Margarete Scharf. She gave the paintings to the Berlin National Gallery for safekeeping at the outbreak of war. The Russians found them in a bunker in the Zoological Garden, along with thegallery's own paintings. Margarete Scharf's sons, Dieter and Walter, have visited the Hermitage to see the family pictures and are trying to get them back.

Another small but distinguished group of pictures comes from the collection of Bernard Koehler, a businessman whose heirs are still untraced; there is a Degas that belonged to Friedrich Siemens; a Monet garden scene from Bremen Kunsthalle; two paintings inscribed "Alice Meyer" and one inscribed "Baron von der Heydt".

A special report on the Hidden Treasures, including new colour photographs, will appear in next week's `Sunday Review'.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Direct Mail Machine Operative

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity for an i...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Accounts Executive

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity for the ...

Recruitment Genius: Team Administrator / Secretary - South East

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time Administrator/Secreta...

Recruitment Genius: Parts Advisor

£16500 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the leading Mercedes-Ben...

Day In a Page

Why the cost of parenting has become so expensive

Why the cost of parenting has become so expensive

Today's pre-school child costs £35,000, according to Aviva. And that's but the tip of an iceberg, says DJ Taylor
Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US