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‘Gold of Troy’ at Heart of Controversy

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

A cultural Cold War between Russia and Germany took on an intensified chill Monday when the Pushkin Museum here unveiled its long-hidden booty from the legendary “Gold of Troy,” excavated more than a century ago by German adventurer Heinrich Schliemann.

The exhibition of 259 gold items of jewelry, service and ceremony is a small but unique share of the more than 8,000 pieces Schliemann unearthed between 1872 and 1890 in his lifelong quest to prove that the Trojan tales were not the fiction of his revered Homer but historical fact.

Guided by “The Iliad” to a site in modern-day Turkey, Schliemann discovered the cache of rings, coins, goblets, earrings, pendants and diadems that have since been dated to 2450-2600 BC, or a full millennium before Homer’s story.

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Despite its dubious link with the fabled city, the objects are still referred to as Schliemann’s Trojan gold and as King Priam’s Treasure.

But if the gold’s origin remains a mystery, its ownership is even more perplexing. Like the purloined collection of Impressionist paintings displayed last year here and in St. Petersburg, the Trojan gold was spirited out of Germany at the time of the Nazi defeat in 1945.

Long thought to have been stolen or destroyed in the chaotic Allied conquest of Berlin, the priceless artifacts of Schliemann’s collection that go on public display at the Pushkin beginning today actually languished in a vault at the Moscow museum for the past half century.

Schliemann collected passports and controversy as much as antiquities and had variously promised his brilliant treasure to Greece, Russia, England, France and the United States before bequeathing the most valuable items to his native Germany in 1881.

The Trojan collection was displayed in Berlin until just before the war, but the whole collection was packed away and hidden near the Berlin Zoo for safekeeping at the outbreak of World War II.

Until Russian authorities conceded two years ago that the treasures had been discovered and looted by Soviet soldiers during the fall of Berlin, the fate of the glittering artifacts was unknown.

Russia and Germany have been conducting tense and fruitless negotiations for the past few years over possession and ownership of the valuables each country’s soldiers stole from the other in wartime.

The two nations signed a treaty in 1990 pledging restoration of “trophy art” to the respective, rightful owners. But Moscow has balked at returning even those valuables whose ownership is beyond question, demanding that Germany first compensate Russia for the destruction inflicted on its cultural heritage at the war’s onset.

Nazi soldiers looted untold troves of paintings and artifacts from St. Petersburg palaces and museums after their 1941 invasion. Among the more infamous losses were 12 priceless panels from the Amber Room of Catherine’s Palace in the village of Pushkin--a wartime disappearance that remains unsolved.

German diplomats made polite proprietary claims to the Impressionist masterpieces when they were put on public display last year. But their disenchantment over the showing of the Trojan treasures has taken on a measurably cooler tone.

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At a news conference at the Pushkin Monday to discuss the significance of the exhibition, Germany’s ambassador to Russia read a stinging statement expressing his government’s dismay that Moscow authorities chose to disregard an earlier agreement to jointly display Schliemann’s treasure.

“The complicated issue of restoration of German cultural valuables, of which this gold is the most outstanding example, can be resolved only in the spirit of mutual understanding,” Ambassador Ernst-Joerg von Studnitz told journalists as the Russian hosts sat in miffed silence. Further, in what appeared to be an attempt to upstage the Pushkin exhibition, a Berlin museum last week put 500 objects from its residual Schliemann collection on display.

Von Studnitz acknowledged that making the works available to the public after more than 50 years was of paramount importance. But he chastised the Russian government for “overlooking the Berlin exhibits and the experience of German experts” in presentation of the artifacts.

Russian Culture Minister Yevgeny Sidarov brushed off the German reaction, reiterating Moscow’s assurances that questions of ownership will be resolved by Russia’s parliament in the future. “As far as I am concerned, these treasures belong to the whole world,” Sidarov proclaimed.

Russian state television declared the opening of Schliemann’s gold “the spilling of one of the longest-held post-war ideological secrets” and alluded to the treasure’s disputed ownership as “a matter of discomfort for many Russians.”

The discoveries of Schliemann, a businessman-turned-archeologist and unquestioned eccentric, have also been claimed by Turkey and some items remain spread among his varied descendants in Europe and the United States, where he held citizenship. First married to a Russian, then to a Greek, Schliemann was so taken with Homer that he named the children of his second marriage Agamemnon and Andromache. Schliemann’s gold is expected to remain at the Pushkin indefinitely, as the museum has resisted traveling exhibitions.

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