The art dealer Ivan Lindsay looks at the history of art theft in his new book ‘A History of Loot and Stolen Art, from Antiquity until the Present Day’, due to be published by Unicorn Press on 3rd November 2013. This fascinating, highly-illustrated history of stolen art and artefacts begins at the earliest days of civilisation and comes right up to the twenty first century. A magisterial and intriguing volume! The book includes a chapter on the Soviet Looting of Germany’s artworks.

A History of Loot and Stolen Art by Ivan Lindsay, courtesy of Unicorn Press

A History of Loot and Stolen Art by Ivan Lindsay, courtesy of Unicorn Press

As the Soviet army advanced towards Berlin Hitler gave the order that all the art that Germany had stolen from across Europe, estimated as 20% of Europe’s artworks by the US appointed SafeHaven Committee in 1945, should be hidden in designated storage areas such as mines and castles.

The Nazis also hid their gold and the contents of their own museums.  When the Soviets started finding these art filled bunkers Stalin gave an order for everything to be removed to Russia and equipped special Trophy Brigades to organise it. It is estimated that Russia took around 3,000,000 artworks of which they returned about half in the 1950’s to museums in areas under their control such as East Germany (including Dresden’s fine collection), Rumania and Poland.
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The 1,500,000 looted artworks remaining in Russia are spread between major museums such as the Hermitage and Pushkin, minor museums, and various designated areas including monasteries and mines known as Trophy deposits, the best known of which is the Trinity-Saint Sergius monastery in Zagorsk.  For many years the curators at the major Russian museums could not afford the train tickets to visit the more remote deposits and even today some of the items have reputedly never been unpacked out of their WWII boxes.
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Although Russian Presidents such as Boris Yeltsin, Mikhail Gorbachev and even Vladimir Putin have all hinted that some returns might be possible it seems clear that Russia, more belligerent in recent years as her confidence has increased in line with strong prices for her natural resources, has no intention of returning anything.From 1945 – 1991 Russia denied it had any trophy art.  In the mid 1990’s it admitted its existence and started exhibiting it before passing a law in the Duma in 2000 that states all artworks in Russian museums belong to Russia.  It differentiates between private looting (like Victor Baldin who stole the contents of the Bremen museum) and legal trophies taken with military sanction (the Trophy Brigades and most of WWII looted art).  The act elaborates saying that Russia didn’t start the war and it views the Trophy Art it rescued as compensation for the 25m people it lost during the war.  As such it turns a weak legal position into a strong emotional one that Germany finds difficult to confront.It is true that the Allies agreed at the Yalta Conference in 1945 that the Russians could have $10bn compensation from the Germans for their losses.  However, it was contingent on the Russians detailing what they had already removed from Germany, a stipulation that they refused to comply with.  In addition, the Allies never ratified the agreement, and the Russians never signed a proper peace treaty with Germany, because relations broke down between all parties shortly after the war.

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The leading Russian museums, the Pushkin and the Hermitage, have been constructed out of looted collections. The core collections were confiscated in 1918 from the Royal Collection of the Tsars and other leading Russian aristocrats such as the Demidovs, Vorontsovs and Sheremetevs. The Impressionist and post-Impressionist collections of the mercantile collectors Schukin and Morozov provide the basis for their later holdings. The Trophy Art acquired in WWII has added to every department of the museums as well as decorating countless government buildings, hospitals and sanatoriums.

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What is certain is that Russia still has at least 1,500,000 art objects looted from Germany after the war, a subject has hung like a black cloud over Russo-German relations ever since.  Looting 3,000,000 art objects puts Stalin as one of the major art thieves of all time, although he has strong competition from the likes of Alexander the Great, Napoleon and Hitler.  Perhaps the final word on the current Russian situation, should go to an elderly WWII veteran of the Red Army who said in 1995, “I don’t think Russia should return art booty to Germany. We suffered a lot from the war, and those treasures should be viewed as a partial compensation for the damage and sufferings.”

About the author:

Ivan Lindsay is an art dealer specializing in European and Russian paintings. He was educated at Eton College and the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. After four years in the British Army in South East Asia, he worked in the City of London before becoming an art dealer. He writes and lectures on art and the art market and is currently a Contributing Editor at Spears Magazine.

For more information on ‘A History of Loot and Stolen Art’ visit: www.russianartdealer.com/history-book-of-stolen-art ‘A History of Loot and Stolen Art’ can be purchased on amazon here