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Looted art publicly acknowledged by Soviet Minister of Culture

A commission will be set up at Gorbachev’s behest to look into cultural property removed to U.S.S.R.

At a press conference held on 25 October the Soviet Ministry of Culture for the first time admitted that there is cultural property within the Soviet Union taken from the West at the end of the war. (For a statement of the official position hitherto see The Art Newspaper No. 12, Nov 1991, p. 1). The Minister Nikolai Gubyenko announced that at the order of the Gorbachev a special commission had been set up to look into the matter.

This is merely a public reinforcement of discrete negotiations which have been going on since before the summer between the the Soviet and German Ministries of Foreign Affairs over this matter (The Art Newspaper, No. 9 June 1991, p.2). It also demonstrates how important it is considered to be, and that policy is being decided at the highest level.

There is some dissatisfaction among the concerned public over the composition of this commission, which is largely made up of ministerial bureaucrats. At a press conference set up by art historians and academics in response to the announcement, it was urged that the commission should include independent professionals, not just interested parties. This reflects the role played by the Assistant Professor of Art History at Moscow State University, Alexei Rastorguyev in bringing the whole matter out into the open (The Art Newspaper No. 8, May 1991, pp.1,2).

In the meanwhile, some amusement has been caused by a story in the newspaper Kommersant (Businessman) about the visit to the Soviet Union of the German businessman Ernst Schliemann. Calling himself the head of the family descended from the famous archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, he came with the express purpose of giving the USSR the right to exhibit the “Treasure of Priam” in the Hermitage. This he duly did during meetings at the Hermitage and with the Ministries of Culture of the USSR and the Russian Federation. Since, however, the USSR has never admitted to having this treasure, it came as a bombshell when the most senior official in the Ministry of Culture, Genrikh (that is, Heinrich) Popov let slip that they did when he quipped: “Your grandfather Heinrich looked for the gold a hundred years ago, so grant another Heinrich a hundred years search”. Popov told the Kommersant that he was only joking, and that it was all a misunderstanding due to the fact that they were speaking English.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The end of World War II—perhaps'