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COLUMN ONE : Displaying the Spoils of War : The Hermitage is about to exhibit Impressionist masterpieces the Soviet army took out of Nazi Germany. The dispute over who has a right to such ‘trophy art’ is fueled by the lure of big money and the bitterness of old foes.

TIMES ART CRITIC

Pandemonium is not a word usually associated with the somber, scholarly field of art history. But imagine suddenly coming upon a world-renowned masterpiece that, by all accounts, had been destroyed during the brutal chaos of war.

Now multiply that impassioned reaction a couple of dozen times. You’ll have some idea of what’s about to erupt in Russia.

St. Petersburg’s State Hermitage Museum will open an exhibition next week that has the art world holding its breath--and the worlds of international law and politics up in arms. The show is the main event in a saga that could have far-reaching repercussions for relations between two old foes. And in the middle stands the Hermitage, one of the great art museums of the world and an institution whose perilous physical condition demands urgent attention after years of Communist neglect.

Dramatically titled “Hidden Treasures Revealed,” the show will include 74 French paintings confiscated from German private collections by the Red Army when it swept over Eastern Europe and into Berlin at the end of World War II.

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The paintings, estimated to be worth several hundred million dollars, are by Impressionist and Postimpressionist painters who rank among the most critically revered and publicly adored artists in Western culture.

The centerpiece is Edgar Degas’ 1875 “Place de la Concorde,” a big, eccentric landmark of Impressionism that textbooks habitually hail, followed by the glum declaration: “Believed destroyed, WWII.”

The unexpected re-emergence of the lost Degas also poses an inescapable question: What should happen to this picture, as well as to the 15 paintings by Pierre Auguste Renoir, seven by Paul Cezanne, six by Claude Monet, four each by Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh and all the rest that for the past half a century were locked in storage in a small room on the Hermitage’s second floor, known only to a handful of museum personnel?

Should the museum return them to the heirs of the German private collectors from whom they were taken, as established international law seems to require? Or should it keep them, putting the paintings on permanent public display, as a rising nationalist chorus within Russia now demands?

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Are these “Hidden Treasures Revealed”? Or are they “Stolen Booty Exposed”? Pressure is building for an answer, because this is part of a larger trend: For years it was rumored that plundered art was hidden in Russia. Since the collapse of communism, bit by bit, it has been coming out of hiding.

In 1992, the Hermitage showed Old Master and Modern drawings that had come from a museum in Bremen, Germany. Last month, three Bremen drawings were seized in New York by the FBI and turned over to the German consul general. They had been offered for sale by a Russian immigrant who claimed to have bought them legally.

Eleven days later, Moscow’s Pushkin Museum unexpectedly unveiled 63 plundered paintings, including a major El Greco. Some had been owned by Hungarian Jews who traded their art to Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann in exchange for liberty.

This fall, the Pushkin will show 308 drawings taken from a Dutch collector; next year, gold from ancient Troy, excavated and taken to Germany by 19th-Century archeologist Heinrich Schliemann, will be displayed.

These works are but the tip of the iceberg. Hundreds of thousands of artifacts may be involved.

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Like the Nazis, the Soviets employed special brigades during World War II for systematic pillaging of trophy art--so called because the victor takes it as an emblem of an enemy’s defeat. (Some art taken by the Nazis disappeared, some was returned to its rightful owners and some was plundered again by Allied soldiers.)

As an economically limping and socially splintered Russian Federation seeks to stabilize and rejoin the international community of nations, the tug of war over trophy art has intensified.

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Political reformers in the 1990s’ new spirit of openness moved to bring these “hidden treasures” to light. Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, echoing his Soviet predecessor, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, said in 1991 that what belongs to Germany should be given back. The countries signed pledges for the exchange of trophy art.

But the recent nationalist backlash against any cooperation with the West has many Russians digging in their heels, insisting that the art be kept as reparations for German war atrocities.

Deputy Culture Minister Mikhail Y. Shvydkoi says Russia’s early agreements with Germany were concluded in a moment of “euphoria” over the Cold War’s end. At a February news conference in St. Petersburg to unveil a sampling consisting of three Hermitage paintings, Shvydkoi declared that Russia did not envision the return of any art. A visibly angered German consul, Eberhard von Puttkamer, described that refusal as “poisonous” for German-Russian relations.

As for the art itself, “I’m shocked by the exhibition,” says Patrice Marandel, curator of European painting and sculpture at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “It is a great discovery. It’s wonderful to have a trove of paintings largely unknown to scholars before.”

All but Monet’s “The Garden,” which belonged to the Bremen Kunsthalle, a German museum, had been privately owned before the war. So, many of the pictures have never been shown publicly.

But Marandel’s shock is double-edged. He objects to any suggestion that Russia should not return long-hidden trophy art. And to many in the art world, that looming ethical question threatens to obscure the aesthetic significance of the Hermitage discovery.

The battle over trophy art is shaping up as a powerful contest between emotion and the rule of law. For the Russians and for many outside observers, the emotional argument is powerful.

Russia suffered mightily under the Nazi assault, which began in June, 1941, and lasted nearly three years. Hitler’s armies looted countless cultural sites as they moved across Eastern Europe toward St. Petersburg, then called Leningrad.

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The Nazi program was unique. National Socialist ideology regarded Slavic people as inferior, so Russia was a target not merely to be conquered--it was to be cleansed, and then Germanized.

Perhaps most devastating was the Nazi destruction of Russian Orthodox churches, frescoes and icons in Novgorod, southeast of St. Petersburg. It had been the celebrated center of Russian icon painting for a thousand years.

Today, many Russians contend that German trophies such as the Hermitage paintings were legitimate reparations for the destruction of sites like Novgorod. And while some would argue that German foreign aid is compensation enough, Nikolai Nikandrov, a Russian archivist researching war damages for the Culture Ministry, rejects this idea. He says that although Germany already provides Russia with the biggest aid program of any donor--$50 billion--it is not equivalent to what was lost. “Maybe we should give (the art) back,” he says. “But not for sausages, spaghetti or soup.”

“Emotionally, the country that had the (military) victory should prevail,” says Petra Kipphoff, art editor of the German newspaper Die Zeit, explaining why she believes it is so hard for Russia to return the paintings. “This is the last trophy that the victor is now being asked to give away.”

But emotion shouldn’t be the decisive factor, adds Kipphoff, who saw the Bremen drawings at the Hermitage in 1992. She argues for the rule of international law.

John Henry Merryman, an expert on international art law at Stanford University, insists that despite Russia’s awful suffering at the hands of Germany, “there is no legal basis for (pillaging). The law is very clear in the 20th Century that it is a violation of international law for combatants to take booty.”

The 1907 Hague Convention, which Russia and Germany signed, barred the confiscation of “works of art and science” from territory occupied in war. The principle was further codified in the 1954 Hague Convention.

Moscow counters with legal arguments of its own. In 1945 the Soviet military control commission was the legal administrator of part of Germany, so the confiscation of paintings by their trophy brigade is now said to have been legitimate.

Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the Hermitage, explains: “For me as a Russian, the question is of the legitimacy of the military command during the war. I can’t agree that what they did then was not correct.”

The Hermitage director finally brushes law aside, however, saying that decision is a matter for politicians. “I have no authority to decide about these things,” he says. “We are museum people. The paintings’ legal status is separate: They belong to the government, not to the museum.”

Not all museum people agree. “In a country where the museums belong to the government,” LACMA’s Marandel says, “it is up to the museum professionals to set the standards. I’m very worried about the direction the Hermitage is taking.

“There is,” he suggests, “a financial game going on.”

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Between 60% and 70% of the Hermitage’s annual budget is paid by the Russian government. The rest must be earned or donated--no small matter in a desperately strapped economy.

The museum has embarked on an international fund-raising effort for its sumptuous but decrepit 1,052-room complex. Last fall, Piotrovsky visited the United States to drum up enthusiasm for raising the $300 million to $400 million needed for repairs.

Disputes aside, “Hidden Treasures Revealed” will be an old-fashioned blockbuster, raising the Hermitage’s profile during this crucial fund-raising effort and leaving open the possibility for sizable revenues.

A lavish catalogue, the potential for exhibition souvenirs and a global museum tour and, of course, the paintings themselves may all be sources of income.

By June, 170,000 copies of the catalogue will have been printed in eight languages. Neither the Hermitage nor the publisher, Harry N. Abrams Inc., a subsidiary of Times Mirror Co., parent of The Times, would comment on the contractual arrangement. But a standard museum publishing deal would probably net the Hermitage at least $2 per book, which the director says will partly be used to subsidize the Russian-language edition.

The museum also holds the potentially lucrative copyright on the images, which can adorn items ranging from calendars to note cards. And although the exhibition will not have a separate admission fee, an expected large attendance of foreign visitors should swell regular admissions.

A resolution of the quarrel with Germany could also lead to a highly profitable global museum tour, sure to bring major fees from other institutions. Philadelphia’s Barnes Collection, which also focuses on Impressionist painting and likewise was not expected to travel, has brought in $3 million per venue now that it is on the road.

Some even argue that resolving the dispute could mean trading paintings for cash or other compensation from Germany.

Heirs already have made claims. Five of the 74 paintings belonged to German insurance magnate Otto Gerstenberg, whose collection was among the finest in Europe before the war. In addition to “Place de la Concorde,” a pair of elegant Renoir decorations and a sizable Honore Daumier are among the paintings he bequeathed to his daughter, Margarete Scharf.

She gave them to Berlin’s National Gallery for safekeeping in April, 1943. The Red Army found them in a bunker built in the zoological garden to hide museum treasures.

Today, Gerstenberg’s great-great-grandson, Rene Scharf, is a German citizen who has lived in New York for almost nine years. “We are in the midst of negotiations, so I cannot speak,” he said by telephone. Although he was not specific, Scharf reportedly has been in touch with Hermitage officials. Scharf said he will be in St. Petersburg when the exhibition opens.

Three-quarters of the Hermitage show comes from a single, less well-known collection assembled by industrialist Otto Krebs, who died in 1941. After this exhibition, he is sure to be regarded as one of the top European collectors of the 20th Century.

Krebs acquired five Cezannes, which encompass the artist’s full range of subjects; four Van Goghs, including one of his final landscapes; Pablo Picasso’s early drawing “Absinthe” and many others. He abruptly stopped collecting in the 1930s, when Adolf Hitler condemned Modern art as degenerate.

The Krebs Foundation, engaged in medical research, received the bulk of his estate. It has filed an official claim through the German government, which has established a joint commission with Russia to mediate trophy art disputes.

Other claims have been filed against the Hermitage paintings:

* The German newsmagazine Der Spiegel reports that Krebs’ 62-year-old granddaughter only recently learned of his collection.

* Rudolf Blaum, former director of the Bremen Kunsthalle, says Bremen works were looted by individual soldiers not under military orders and that many items ended up on the black market.

* Sebastian von Johnston, a grandson of industrialist and art collector Carl Friedrich von Siemens, says a Eugene Delacroix flower painting listed in the Hermitage catalogue as “collection unknown” belonged to Siemens.

If the Hermitage works are returned, some could conceivably find their way onto the art market.

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A resolution acceptable to both sides will be difficult to forge.

“If you’re very old,” Stanford’s Merryman advises German claimants, “it may be your children who enjoy the results.”

Complicating matters is new, far-reaching legislation wending its way through the Russian Parliament. The law would give Parliament, not the president, jurisdiction over trophy art.

All art that was brought into the Soviet Union from occupied Germany by orders of the Soviet military control commission in Berlin would be nationalized.

Art taken illegally--by individual soldiers, for example--could be given back in return for compensation.

Action on the bill is not expected until later this year. Critics call it a throwback to Napoleonic times and worry over leaving artistic decisions to a government body susceptible to swings in political mood. Backers say that nationalization has strong public support and will be hard to oppose with parliamentary elections scheduled for December.

With Moscow having lost the Cold War and with the 50th anniversary of victory over the Nazis approaching in May, no Russian politician can afford such concessions to Germany, commentators in both countries say.

With the spotlight about to shine on the controversial Hermitage show, Mikhail V. Seslavinsky, chairman of a Parliament subcommittee on culture, observes: “This law will be fiercely criticized abroad. But most of our people don’t see how the country will benefit from giving this art to Germany. All they see is that the withdrawal of our troops from Germany has burdened our economy and aggravated social tensions.

“The people themselves don’t feel guilty for taking this stuff away.”

Times staff writer Richard Boudreaux in Moscow and researcher Petra Falkenberg in Berlin contributed to this story.


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