Complex History, Very Few Returns
Nations, such as Germany and Hungary, as well as individuals whose collections were taken from them In Budapest, are seeking to recover property taken during the Holocaust and now found in Russia. Claims in the courts of the Russian Federation have yielded no recoveries and negotiations have been long and mostly frustrating. Some Russian libraries have found ways to return books to Germany and some stained-glass windows were returned to a church in Frankfurt-an-der-Oder. Russia produced a partial list of paintings and sculpture from Hungarian collections that are now in Russia; a complete inventory of this art has yet to be made public.
At the end of the Second World War, the Red Army in northeast Germany came across many works of art that had either been sent to this sparsely populated region for safekeeping (for example, by German museums) or trainloads of art and valuable objects taken from Hungary and shipped there during the final months of hostilities. Trainloads of art and archives were taken to the USSR. In the decades that followed, the “Iron Curtain” effectively obscured the fate of thousands of works of art and a huge number of archives. For almost fifty years, most of the world forgot about it; under the Soviet regime, it was virtually impossible for a foreigner to bring a claim, and archives were open to only a miniscule number of foreigners.
When the USSR was on the verge of collapse, two art historians from the Soviet Union published in an article in ARTnews exposing the secret survival of many great works of art missing since the end of World War II. Konstantin Akinsha and Grigorii Kozlov, who later published more information in their book Beautiful Loot, were largely responsible for the government’s admitting that both the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and the Pushkin Museum in Moscow had secretly held art taken in the Second World War. Both museums held exhibitions that drew tremendous international attention, and the Hermitage catalogue, Hidden Treasures Revealed, provided further detail and excellent photographs of the paintings. Among the masterpieces revealed to be in Russia was a major Degas painting, Place de la Concorde and the Gold of Troy from Berlin’s Museum of Pre- and Early History. This public admission ended fifty years of speculation in the West as to the whereabouts, and even the survival, of these works.
Since Russia retained so much art and cultural property that it brought home at the end of the war, several culture ministers and Dumas (congresses) have put a law into place which makes it theoretically possible -- under rare circumstances and with many pre-conditions -- for a Nazi persecutee to make a claim. No claimant has yet succeeded under the law, but some years ago, Russia allowed one branch of the Rothschild family to take family archives back, after payment of a substantial consideration. The current case of Chabad suing several entities in Russia is one of the most recent important examples of claimants trying to recover cultural property.
Edgar Degas Place de la Concorde (Viscount Lepic and his Daughters Crossing the Place de la Concorde)
Missing for 45 years