International Journal of Cultural Property

Articles

Why Can't Private Art “Trophies” Go Home from the War?

The Baldin-Bremen Kunsthalle Case: A Cause-Célèbre of German-Russian Restitution Politics

Konstantin Akinshaa1

a1 ARTnews. Email: akinsha@fastmail.net

Abstract

This article is dedicated to the collection from the Bremen Kunsthalle, comprising 1715 drawings, 50 paintings, and about 3000 prints found by Soviet troops in castle of Karnzow near Berlin in May 1945. The collection was not seized by Soviet trophy brigades but was looted by soldiers and officers of the 38th Field Engineers' Brigade of the Red Army.

After their return to the USSR and demobilization, some of the officers donated their loot to different museums around the Soviet Union. One of the most important parts of the collection, with 362 drawings and two paintings—among them works of Dürer, Rembrandt, Goya, and Van Gogh, was appropriated by Captain Viktor Baldin. In 1948 Baldin deposited his loot in the A. V. Shchusev State Research Museum of Architecture in Moscow. Later Baldin became the director of the museum and advocated return of the art to its rightful owners.

Since the days of Gorbachev's perestroika, these art works have frequently attracted public attention and provoked fierce debates. The Federal Law on Cultural Valuables adopted in 1998 did not cover art works looted by private individuals. Rather, such conflicts have to be solved within the framework of Russian criminal law.

In contrast, other works of art from the same Bremen Kunsthalle collection were restituted from the United States, Ukraine, and Estonia. Another 101 drawings and prints of the collection, seized by another member of Baldin's brigade, were returned from Russia to Bremen in 2000, but that was in “exchange” for an original mosaic from the legendary Amber Chamber. However, despite more than 20 years of efforts by German officials and endless negotiations, the Baldin Collection remains in the Russian Federation. The return of those stolen drawings any time soon now looks highly improbable. The case of the Baldin Collection became the most striking example of the Russian nonrestitution of cultural property looted during World War II.

Footnotes

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: I would like to express my gratitude to Patricia Grimsted for her help and advice during my work on this article.

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