Trojan gold fuels rift over war treasures

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To the considerable irritation of Germany, the Russians will today unveil one of the most breathtaking archaeological finds in history - a collection of gold from ancient Troy, which the Red Army seized in Berlin at the end of the Second World War.

More than 250 pieces unearthed by a German amateur archaeologist will go on display in Moscow for the first time, despite repeated German claims that the treasures belong to them and ought to be given back.

The Trojan gold, a tiny fraction of the many thousands of works of art which the Soviet Union seized at the end of the war, have become the focal point in a row over wartime booty that has marred Germany's otherwise friendly relations with the Kremlin.

The collection's existence in Russia only became known in 1993, when the Pushkin Museum astonished the world by revealing that it was in its possession. It is known as King Priam's Treasure because its discoverer in 1873 - Heinrich Schliemann - was convinced it belonged to Priam, the King of Troy who featured in Homer's Iliad. Experts have since dated it to long before Homer - some 2500BC.

Yesterday, Germany's ambassador to Moscow, Ernst York von Studnitz, was putting on the bravest face that anyone could be expected to wear, given that he was contemplating billions of pounds worth of sparkling treasure - from basket-shaped gold earrings to a solid gold gravy boat - that his country lays claim to.

"I think it is a step towards normalcy that these things are now, after 50 years in hiding, finally surfacing again," he said, "But I would not say this is a matter for rejoicing."

The German embassy was a little more forthright. It issued a statement lamenting that the issue had arisen "when German-Russian relations are especially close and built on trust and when Germany regards itself as the best partner of Russia". Their pique is hardly surprising; only a few weeks ago, Helmut Kohl swept into Moscow in a trip which clearly boosted Boris Yeltsins's presidential campaign.

The Pushkin exhibition is another chapter in a long feud over art seized by the Red Army. In 1990, amid the euphoria following the end of the Cold War, Russia and Germany signed a "good neighbours" treaty providing for the mutual return of wartime booty. But Russia has remained reluctant, and negotiations have run into trouble.

Russians have tended to argue that their haul of priceless treasures from Germany is rightfully theirs, as restitution for the colossal damages and losses inflicted by the Nazis. The Soviet Union under Stalin - which saw at least 500 museums destroyed by Hitler's army - set about gathering booty methodically Art experts were dispatched to Germany with specific orders to collect art, and to arrange for its shipment back to the Soviet Union.

The signs are that much of it will stay in Russian hands for a while yet. Asked about the prospects for the return of King Priam's gold to Berlin, Mr von Studnitz replied gloomily: "I am not optimistic."