Russia reaffirms pledge to return Nazi-looted art

MOSCOW, Dec. 29 (JTA) — Russia has reaffirmed its commitment to return works of art stolen by the Nazis during the Holocaust that are now housed in Russian museums. But Western hopes that Russia has many of these works are “exaggerated,” the Foreign Ministry said in a recent statement. At an international conference in Washington on Holocaust-era assets earlier this month, Russia agreed to return to Holocaust victims or their heirs art looted by the Nazis. Experts say such restitution would be difficult under a Russian “trophy art” law issued last year. The law requires that claims should be made by governments rather than individuals. In addition, a work can be returned only if the Russian Parliament approves each restitution by a separate act. The bill has also been criticized for not distinguishing between artworks that belonged to Germany and those that were looted by the Nazis from other countries. Moreover, the April 1998 law set a deadline of November 1999 to make a request for restitution. Foreign Ministry spokesman Vladimir Rakhmanin has been quoted as saying the government would be willing to extend the deadline. At the end of the war, the Soviet Union dispatched special teams to collect thousands of paintings, as well as archival material that included manuscripts and photographs, from the defeated Nazis. Valery Kulishov, director of the restitution department with the Russian Ministry of Culture and head of the Russian delegation at the December conference in Washington, said in an interview that Russian museums contain some objects whose origins are unknown. “But this does not mean that they necessarily belong to Holocaust victims,” Kulishov added. Since the end of World War II, Russia has zealously guarded information about the details of the art taken from Nazi Germany. About 200,000 pieces of this trophy art are now reportedly stored in Russian museums and private collections. In a related development, a Hungarian diplomat stationed in Russia reiterated that her country would claim art confiscated from prominent Hungarian Jewish families during World War II. In an interview published in the daily newspaper Kommersant, Rita Mayer, the counselor for cultural affairs at the Hungarian Embassy, specifically mentioned the names of several Hungarian Jews whose collections, first confiscated by the Nazis, are now kept in state-run museums in Moscow and in Central Russia. “Their heirs are alive, and even if they are not, the property belongs to Hungarian Jewish community,” Mayer said. Some art was taken by the Red Army from banks in Budapest where Jews were forced to deposit their valuables in the late 1930s. Other objects came from the collection of top Nazi official Adolf Eichmann, who stole them in 1944. According to Mayer, Hungary has documents proving the origin of these art objects. One of such works is the portrait of a woman by French painter Camille Corot — allegedly originally from the collection of Hungarian Jew Ferenz Hatvani — which is now a prized possession of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow. Last year, the Hungarian government asked Moscow about the fate of art treasures stolen by the Nazis from Hungarian citizens, including Jews. In its request, Hungary mentioned at least one Hungarian Jew as being the rightful owner of a collection of paintings now in Russia. Russia has yet to return any of the works.

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