Germans demand return of stolen treasures

By Linda Jones

A ceremony at the Hermitage to unveil a collection of paintings plundered by Soviet troops in 1945 was overshadowed by demands for their return to Germany.

Two daughters of industrialist and collector Friedrich Siemens said the 74 works of art, looted by special Red Army brigades, should be handed back to the families they once belonged to.

"Nobody has the right to take something that does not belong to them," said Daniela Brabner-Smith, one of Siemens' daughters.

She told the hundreds of international journalists gathered for the opening of the display, "I grew up with these paintings and I cannot remember a day without seeing them in our family house.

"We always knew the paintings were in Russia, perhaps in dark, dank catacombs so we are very happy to see them again."

She added, "Of course you have to have a higher objective -- friendly relations between two countries -- but after 50 years, it's time to settle this issue and return the paintings to their rightful owners."

Ms Brabner-Smith and her sister, Anabele von Johnston, said that two of the pictures featured in the Hermitage exhibition hung in the drawing room of their Berlin home before the war. The family hid its collection after the Nazis executed one of their sons for resistance activities. The paintings were subsequently found and stolen by the Russians.

All but one of the paintings in the Hermitage's "Hidden Treasures Revealed" exhibition are from private collections. The display features masterpieces by artists including Picasso, Van Gogh, Renoir, Cezanne, Gauguin and Manet.

Hundreds of international art lovers flocked to exhibition on its first day. Many Russians said it was the wrong time to discuss the thorny issue of the paintings' return.

Meanwhile Germany's acting consul Cord Meier-Klodt said Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel would ask Russian President Boris Yeltsin to speed up the restitution process. Many Russians believe that artworks removed from German soil should be viewed as fair compensation for the Soviet Union's suffering under Hitler's invading armies.

Russia also lost treasures when the Nazis destroyed medieval frescoes and bombed Baroque palaces. Missing amber panels from Catherine the Great's Pushkin summer palace are at the center of the latest twist in the on-going row between Russia and Germany over the so-called "war booty."

Russia this year acknowledged publicly that scores of priceless German artworks seized by the Red Army had been hidden away.

A draft law -- under which valuables would be given back -- was drawn up last week. It will cover plunder seized in 1945.

Germany wants a collection of archaeological artifacts called "Treasure of King Priam," currently on show at Moscow's Pushkin Museum, to be returned.

And Russia says it wants to know what has become of amber panels removed from the fabled amber room in Catherine the Great's summer palace.

During World War II, all of Russia's imperial palaces except Oranienbaum (Lomonosov) lay within Nazi-occupied territory.

The Germans spent three years destroying everything they could lay their hands on.

* With reference to last week's article headlined: "Foreign tourists invited to boost Hermitage's flagging fortunes" the museum directors would like to stress that the fund-raising campaign and the Hidden Treasures Revealed exhibition are in no way connected.

The exhibition is not a profit-making exercise and has been staged at the expense of the State Hermitage.

Furthermore, foreign tourists are under no obligation to buy the $15 charity tickets.

They are invited to pay the double charge only if they wish to contribute to the construction of a new visitor's entrance to the museum.

We apologize for any misunderstanding the article may have caused.