Moscow proudly displays the looted art it once denied

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The Independent Online

in Moscow

Irina Antonova, director of the Pushkin Museum, who for years doggedly denied Moscow was holding treasures confiscated from the Nazis, yesterday performed an elegant volte-face as she opened an exhibition of some of the best "trophy art".

Expressing delight that the times now allowed her to be frank, she advised visitors to pay particular attention to two works by Goya at the centre of the show.

But the occasion was marred by a row with Germany, which felt its post- war friendship with Russia entitled it to be consulted before the Goyas and 61 other pictures by European masters, including El Greco, Tintoretto, Renoir and Manet, went on public display.

Introducing the exhibition entitled "Saved Twice Over", Ms Antonova said the world should not blame Russia for hiding the art for 50 years but should be grateful Stalin's confiscation squads "saved" it from the ruins of Berlin in 1945, handing it over to Russian museum workers who "saved" it again through painstaking restoration work.

By contrast, Germany was able to produce little of the vast quantity of Russian art looted by the Nazis during their occupation of Soviet territory because most of it had been lost, she said.

That went down badly with German diplomats who wandered through the exhibition making copious notes about the paintings. Like the press corps, they had received invitations only a few days before the opening instead of being involved at the planning stage.

"Today we have heard one-sided opinions, distorted facts and omissions from the very person who for so long denied the art was here," the German press attach, Reinhold Frickhinger, said.

He noted that the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, which recently previewed its own trophy-art exhibition, due to open next month, had handled matters better by inviting some of the descendants of German owners to see their lost possessions. This created a degree of goodwill while complicated negotiations continue between the Russian and German governments over who should finally keep the art.

To ordinary Muscovites who are expected to queue up to see the Pushkin's exhibition the row will be of little interest compared with the wonderful glowing paintings, some of which came from German state museums but most of which belonged to private collectors, often Jewish. The 63 pictures represent about one sixth of the trophy art held by the Pushkin.

Goya's Carnival on the Square and Female Portrait are likely to arouse interest because there are no other examples of the Spaniard's work in Russia. Art lovers who have not had the opportunity to travel know of him only through books. Other exquisite works include Portrait of a Man with Whiskers and The Fall of Man by the German Renaissance artist Lucas Cranach and A Nude Drying Herself and Dancer with her Left Leg on a Bench by the French Impressionist Edgar Dgas. There is one English painting, Portrait of a Youth by George Romney, which found its way to Russia via a private German buyer and then by Soviet confiscation.

The exhibition vindicates the work of two Russian art historians, Grigory Kozlov and Konstantin Akinsha. They risked their careers to tell the world about the hidden treasures at a time when the authorities were still denying that they existed.

The pair were students when they first heard from their professors about hundreds of thousands of priceless art works that had been dumped in dark storerooms across Russia by the confiscation squads.

Later, they obtained proof of the art's existence when, while helping to clean the Soviet Ministry of Culture, they found discarded papers which turned out to be the transport documents that had accompanied the works from Berlin.

The trophies included not only paintings, graphics, sculptures and archaeological treasures from Germany but art from France, Poland and the Netherlands that had been looted by the Nazi occupiers.

Treasures which came from the eastern part of Germany were given back in the 1950s because Moscow had comradely relations with what was then East Germany. Much fanfare attended this restitution, allowing Moscow to cover up the fact that it still had works from the West.

The first official to admit this was Yevgeny Sidorov, appointed as Russia's new Culture Minister after President Boris Yeltsin defeated the hard-line coup attempt in August 1991.

Gradually, trophy art began to emerge. For example, pictures from the city of Bremen have already been seen.

Later this year, the Koenigs Collection of Old Master drawings from the Netherlands will go on show, after which the Dutch hope to get it back. Next year will see the most exciting trophy exhibition of all - a display of gold that the 19th-century German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann dug up from the site of Troy.

Ms Antonova assured her guests that all the treasures which had fallen into the hands of the Soviet state had been well looked after and would see the light of day.

But she could give no assurance about art picked up by Soviet servicemen, acting on a freelance basis, in Berlin in 1945. Many former military and KGB officers are thought to have European art on the walls of their flats and there is little chance it will be returned.