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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.

March 20, 1995|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | 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.

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?

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.

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.

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