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Germans give way to gloom on restitution prospects as gulf becomes apparent at Dessau conference

Leading museum directors pessimistic

A conference organised in the Bauhaus town of Dessau in early December brought to light just how profound the gulf is between Russia and Germany on issues of restitution.

The event was organised by the Konrad-Adenauer Foundation, a study centre for contemporary politics. The venue was the Anhaltische Gemälde-galerie, a venue specially chosen by the organisers to draw attention to the plight of smaller institutions: the Anhaltische is currently trying to have returned from Russia about 150 items from its otherwise intact princely collection.

Representatives from the Berlin, Bremen and Dresden museums spoke at the conference. Also speaking was German Interior Ministry official Herbert Guttler who insisted that the government would not abandon any claims, given the unequivocal nature of the Hague Convention. For the Berlin museums, their director Wolf-Dieter Dube (who took a very strong line on this issue in this newspaper last month, p.5, noted that the director of the Pushkin Museum, Mrs Antonova, no longer bothers to attend meetings of the bi-lateral war booty commission. “The doors of the secret archives, which had been opened by a tiny slit are once again slammed shut”, Dr Dube said, “and what’s more, this happens, in my opinion, on the orders of the Ministry of Culture”. Mr Dube noted that the Berlin State Museums are working on a publication of their war-time losses which is expected to run to thirty-two volumes.

Speaking on the subject of the Bremen drawings still in Russia, Rudolf Blaum from the Bremen Kunsthalle noted that, despite the 1992 agreement to return some of the drawings, nothing had been done, due to interfence by the Russian parliament. “Within weeks”, he said, “the agreement was declared null and void”. His museum’s view was that the Russians are trying to obtain more of the Bremen drawings for themselves (ten were ceded over by the Germans as part of the 1992 agreement). “In the end, said Mr Blaum, “there will be no solution which does not involve enormous sacrifice on the German side.”

A different note was struck by Harald Marx, director of the Dresden Gemäldegalerie, who felt that German laws on title make it difficult to confiscate stolen or looted works of art when they appear on the art market. He pointed to the case of three seventeenth-century Dutch paintings from the Dresden collection which a Hamburg art dealer had offered to the Gallery for five times their actual market value. “Who is going to stop the Russians”, he asked, “when the Germans hold on to laws which appear to reward the art robbers?”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Germans give way to gloom'