Europe, Headlines

CULTURE-RUSSIA: Russian Art Treasures, Looted With Ease

Sergei Blagov

MOSCOW, Jul 28 1998 (IPS) - The theft of priceless Russian cultural artifacts is on the increase, driven by a highly lucrative market for smuggled art treasures in the West and encouraged by the ease with which thieves can operate in museums and churches.

“We are keen to prevent the illegal shipment of artifacts out of Russia,” says Anatoly Vilkov, director of the Russian culture ministry’s conservation department. “But we are currently seeking 30,000 stolen articles and, so far, only 2,500 cases of theft have been brought to court.”

Many of Russia’s most famous artists and writers are vocal in their criticism of Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s alleged failure to pay attention to cultural and conservation issues. In one typical case, an art gallery in Sochi, a sea resort in southern Russia, had 14 paintings stolen from its walls in a single year, including two rare paintings of Ivan Aivazovsky and Vasily Polenov, 19th century Russian classical artists.

The two pictures were recovered last week to add to nine others recovered earlier but museum authorites are fearful the thefts will be repeated.

“It’s too easy for would-be criminals,” admits Tamara Kruk, the director of the Sochi museum, “there are neither fortified doors, nor a security alarm.”

Like so many other industries and public sector agencies in Russia, most Russian museums are starved of funds by a cash- strapped government. Many cannot even pay electricity bills, threatening the safety of items that need to be kept in areas where temperature and humidity is controlled. Many more cannot afford to restore or maintain the art works.

Even Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery, which houses one of the best collections of Russian art, came close to shutting down last December when the Interior ministry cut the number of security guards it provides the building.

The 141-year-old Tretyakov reopened to the public in 1995 after a decade-long renovation. The 62 halls of the Tretyakov Gallery are home to more than 100,000 unique artifacts ranging from centuries- old icons and sculptures to 20th-century paintings.

Officials believe that the theft of artifacts is being run by organised crime in Russia. “The people who organised the theft from Sochi museum and smuggled paintings out of Russia — all of them now are dead,” says Yuri Isayenko, a senior investigator at the Russian Supreme Prosecutor’s office.

Russian Orthodox Church, persecuted during the Soviet era, has enjoyed increasing support in recent years but has become a target for thieves. Tens of thousands of icons and other religious artifacts have been stolen and only about 2,000 recovered by police over the last five years, mostly confiscated from smugglers trying to take them out of Russia.

Vilkov’s department is completing a nationwide register of artifacts, to help in the process of identifying stolen items when they come on the market or pass through customs.

In a related issue, attention has also focused on lost treasures taken during World War II, plundered by marauding Nazi German troops during World War II. Little more that 100,000 dollars worth of artifacts looted by the Nazis has been recovered, and there is no trace so far of the biggest prize, the fabled Amber Room.

When the Nazis besieged St Petersburg (then Leningrad) in 1941- 42, they fell upon the museum housing the Amber Room, stripping out its ornate wall panels, originally presented as a gift from King Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia to Catherine the Great in the mid-1700s.

Its present whereabouts are unknown and the continuing mystery underpinned the decision of the Russian parliament to ban the return to Germany of treasures looted by Russian troops when the boot was on the other foot in 1944-1945.

Despite Yeltsin’s veto, overruled by the Constitutional Court, the bill became law on Apr. 7, making it virtually impossible for the Russian government to return art seized from Germany. Twenty million Russians died during the Nazi war and its industrial and agricultural heartland was razed, and many Russians believe the looted millions is only just recompense.

The booty includes cultural heritage of Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, Finland, Hungary and Romania. It includes some 300,000 artifacts, including the so-called Treasure of Priam, excavated from the presumed site of the ancient city of Troy, irreplaceable archives and an estimated two million books.

Soviet Russia denied for decades that there were any plundered artifacts in Russian museums, but in recent years Moscow museums have been bringing the booty, literally, out of the closet. Works by Renoir, Manet, Van Gogh, Goya, Degas, Rembrandt and Gauguin went on public display for the first time in 50 years in 1995 in St Petersburg and Moscow.

Priam’s Treasure has been given a room in Moscow’s Pushkin Museum, while Germany and Russia dispute ownership. Discovered in 1873 by Heinrich Schliemann in Hissarlik, Turkey, the 260 spectacular gold artifacts that make up Priam’s Treasure were initially believed to date back to the Trojan War, between 1400 and 1200 BC.

Schliemann donated the find, itself smuggled out of Turkey, to Germany three years later. Tests have found the objects – diadems of woven gold, rings, bracelets, necklaces, belts and brooches – actually pre-date 1200 BC.

Germany also seeks the return of several other unique artifacts, including two Gutenberg bibles which vanished in Leipzig in 1945 and the rest of the Goethe Library, part of which the Soviet Union handed to then East Germany in 1958.

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