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Ex-Soviet Officer Tried to Return Art Found in Cellar

March 20, 1995|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — In June, 1945, a Soviet captain fond of sketching portraits of his fellow soldiers was summoned to the cellar of an 18th-Century castle outside Berlin to examine some spoils of the war just ended.

In the damp, windowless room, Viktor I. Baldin saw hundreds of drawings scattered like leaves after a storm, being trampled by the men of his engineering brigade. There were masterworks by Jean Baptiste Camille Corot, Edgar Degas, Eugene Delacroix, Albrecht Durer, Francisco Goya, Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Raphael, Rembrandt, Rubens, Titian and Vincent van Gogh.

"My heart almost stopped when I realized what kind of treasure I had come across," said Baldin, who had studied art before the war. "I realized immediately that it had to be saved."

The 364 drawings and watercolors gathered by the young officer and packed carefully in a suitcase were a fraction of the art trove hauled out of defeated Germany. Their 50-year journey through secrecy, revelation and diplomacy is a telling drama in the struggle between Russia and Germany over thousands of looted art works--the last hostages of World War II.

In some ways, the treasure in Baldin's luggage, part of a collection from the Bremen Kunsthalle, a German museum, is a special case. While Russia contends that organized plunder by its wartime trophy brigade was legal, Baldin acted on his own. And among the many individuals who shared in Russia's haul, he alone has offered to return his part without reward.

But six years after that offer, elevated to a promise by President Boris N. Yeltsin, the Bremen collection is still in Russia. Its fate now is tied to the glacial evolution of a Russian law that would nationalize much of the art brought here after the war.

Baldin, 75, lives with his wife in a modest one-bedroom apartment in Moscow, crammed with mementos of five years at war and a career restoring war-damaged monasteries. The Bremen drawings are stored at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, but he keeps photographic reproductions in folders.

During an interview, the retired architect gently lifted out some of his favorites, smiling at them like lifelong friends, and recalled the long night in the cellar when he came to know them.

His superiors had refused to truck the drawings to Russia, so Baldin ordered other soldiers out and worked by candlelight, choosing the best he could carry and cutting them from their mountings. Among them was the only known study for Van Gogh's famous "Starry Night."

"I started in on the beautiful things," he said. "Then I saw it was all beautiful."

On the march home, he spotted other drawings, mostly nudes taken by soldiers as pinups, and bought them for rubles, his belt, his watch. After three days of haggling, he traded boots for a 16th-Century Durer head of Christ.

Other soldiers who had beaten him to the cellar sold drawings on the Soviet black market. Collectors came to the monastery in Zagorsk where Baldin worked and offered to make him rich.

Fearing trouble with Soviet authorities or theft of the treasure from his tiny room, Baldin gave the artwork to his superior, Alexei Shchusev, the designer of Lenin's tomb, who hid it in Moscow's architecture museum in 1947.

"The only thing that ever moved me was a desire to save this colossal cultural treasure for humanity," Baldin insisted. "I knew one day the Cold War would end, and I would return it. . . . "

By 1974, Baldin was director of the architecture museum. He began writing letters urging Soviet leaders to give the collection back. Getting no reply, he revealed its existence to Siegfried Salzmann, then director of the Bremen Kunsthalle, in 1989 and to Russian television a year later.

The sensational disclosure led to others about the vastness of secret Soviet war booty. The Kunsthalle, which had shipped 4,000 works of art to the castle outside Berlin to protect them from Allied bombing, thanked Baldin for saving some of the best pieces among more than 1,700 still missing.

Germany and Russia began discussing restitution, but hard-liners in Moscow weighed in. When Yeltsin tried to take the drawings to Germany in late 1991, he was talked out of it by the Culture Ministry, which then spirited the collection from Baldin's museum to the Hermitage. Part of it was shown there in 1992.

In 1993, a Russian-German commission met in Bremen and found a solution: Russia would return the drawings, but 10 of the best would be given back to the Hermitage; Germany would restore churches in Nazi-ravaged Novgorod, celebrated center of Russian icon painting, and help Russia trace precious works lost in the war.

Bonn agreed and so did Yeltsin, but there was a catch. The deal is being delayed by pressure from Russian museum directors, who first want a law nationalizing the bulk of the trophy art; otherwise, they fear that the return of the Bremen drawings will set a legal precedent for emptying their storerooms. Parliament is debating such a law.

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