11 June 2011

Looted paintings in the State Museum of Smolensk

Картинная галерея, Смоленск
Source: Smolensk Travel
In 2005, a museum in Smolensk, in cooperation with the German Embassy in Moscow, organized an exhibit of German paintings from the 17th century to the early part of the 20th century. Most of the paintings came from the permanent collection of the Smolensk Museum. Of the paintings that were exhibited, more than a dozen came from a single family—Stolberg-Wernigerode—whose estate in Radenz (present-day Borzeciczki), in western Poland near Poznan, had been plundered, first by the Nazis, then by Soviet troops.

The German Embassy in Moscow made contact with the Stolberg-Wernigerode heirs seeking to establish the correct provenance and ownership of the paintings being exhibited in Smolensk. Furthermore, the curatorial staff of the Smolensk Museum even invited the Stolberg-Wernigerode family to come and visit the museum and view the paintings. And so they did.

As they tell the story, the visit took place in November 2005 following a five-hour train ride from Moscow to Smolensk and was nothing short of surrealistic. The following is excerpted from a master’s thesis entitled “Fateful Encounter in Smolensk” submitted on December 10, 2010 by Marie Stolberg as partial fulfillment of a Master’s Degree in International Art Crime Studies sponsored by ARCA—Association for Research into Crimes against Art:
“For our visit they had been taken out of the depot and put up on easels in an extra room. There they were, so many years after they had gone missing, as if nothing had ever happened. Here was the beloved grandmother with the bracelet she gave to her granddaughter who wears it still; the grandfather, great‐grandparents and landscapes of Wernigerode. The paintings had all been restored and they were in excellent condition. It was moment of great emotion. We sat down for an intensive exchange of information with the curators and the director. They were keen to hear about the family and to see the photo album with the paintings hanging on the walls. The curator, Nadeshda Wolossenkowa, said that the crates with the collection from Krotoschinskij
 in Poland had arrived in the summer of 1945. She mentioned, rather incidentally, that a countless amount of further cultural objects (none of which had ever been unpacked, inventoried or even looked at), were still stored in the depots. The conversation was intriguing. At the end of the day we carefully touched on the subject of restitution. I remember Nadeshda’s answer was very polite if not a little vague. She had expected the question and said that one way could possibly be in exchange for cultural objects from Smolensk which had been looted by the Nazis and removed from Russia. She presented us with two catalogues published by the museum and listing works of art missing from their collection. At the same time she stressed that the matter of restitution was not in her hands and only to be decided by the ministry.”
And therein lies the rub. How do claimants recover anything from the former Soviet Union, despite having sufficient proof that the works were rightfully theirs?

Following various official exchanges with the Russian Ministry of Culture, it became apparent that there would not be any consideration of a restitution until the Stolberg-Wernigerode family produced official papers and documentation indicating that the paintings rightfully belonged to them. A difficult task considering the fact that over one hundred years had elapsed since the paintings had entered the family’s estate and a major European conflagration had been responsible for virtually wiping out all traces of historical evidence of individual and collective history, first at the hands of the Germans, then at the hands of the Soviets. Twice plundered.

In some measure, the behavior of the Russian Ministry of Culture closely mirrors that of most governments and cultural institutions faced with such claims—the desire to maintain their current ownership of objects which fell into their hands by circumstances associated with war, plunder, and genocide.

The solution proffered by the curator of the Smolensk Museum—to exchange the works for items plundered by the Germans from their museum by elements of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR)—has become a preferred strategy of the Russian government. Nothing is unilateral. There has to be a quid pro quo, regardless of the validity of the claim submitted by the despoiled party.