State Maintains Firm Grip on Pilfered Treasures
Published: February 27, 2013 (Issue # 1748)
MOSCOW — President Vladimir Putin said last week that returning a Jewish book collection confiscated after the Bolshevik Revolution was impossible because it would open a “Pandora’s box” of claims on such property.
“[If Russia] starts satisfying these sorts of claims, there would be no end to them and no telling what the consequences might be,” Putin said at the vast new Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow.
But some formerly communist countries have passed laws voluntarily giving back seized assets, and observers note that Russia has already opened this box by returning properties to the Russian Orthodox Church.
The Schneerson Library of thousands of religious tomes and manuscripts, which Putin proposed placing in the Jewish museum in Moscow, is among scores of cultural artifacts claimed by descendants of their former owners.
The Soviet government appropriated huge amounts of property after the 1917 revolution, including factories, banks and assets of the Russian Orthodox Church, and withdrew from Germany after World War II with trucks full of war booty.
One of the most prominent assets in Russia to be claimed by a foreign government is a collection of gold known as Priam’s Treasure, discovered by German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann in the 1870s on what he thought was the site of ancient Troy.
The collection of Trojan gold headbands, earrings and other jewelry was pilfered in 1945 by the Red Army from a bunker under the Berlin Zoo. Certain items from the treasure, including the Large Diadem, a headband made of shimmering gold leaf, are on display at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts.
According to the terms of a 1990 treaty, Russia was supposed to return all the art and artifacts the Soviet Union took from Germany, including Priam’s Treasure, but it hasn’t done so.
The Pushkin Museum and the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg are also home to a valuable set of impressionist paintings claimed by someone else. Art collectors Mikhail and Ivan Morozov put together the collection, which includes works by French impressionists Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Alfred Sisley, among others. Descendants of the Morozov family have claimed the paintings as their rightful property.
A spokeswoman for Hermitage director Mikhail Piotrovsky said the museum is “against all forms of restitution.”
Unlike Russia, certain central and eastern European nations have adopted laws stipulating the return of nationalized properties to their original owners. Some Russian pundits believe that Russia should now follow suit, but they warn of the difficulties involved.
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