Culture

Merkel, Putin spar over looted artworks

Russia's President Vladimir Putin (R) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel (C) visit theexhibition "Bronze Age of Europe -- Europe Without Borders" " at the State Hermitage fine art museum in St. Petersburg on June 21, 2013. (AFP PHOTO / POOL / ANATOLY MALTSEV)

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia: Chancellor Angela Merkel has told President Vladimir Putin that German art seized by the Soviets in the wake of World War II should be repatriated to Germany, a claim the Russian leader swiftly rejected. The tense exchange took place as they opened an exhibition at the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg during Merkel’s trip to Russia. The exhibition about the Bronze Age includes 600 items carried off by the Soviet Union as war reparations, according to Berlin.

Merkel said it was an important step that the works were now going on public display for the first time. “It’s our opinion,” she said, “that these exhibition pieces should be returned to Germany.”

Putin replied that it was time to stop making repatriation claims against each other, otherwise Russia could also demand the return of art from Germany. He said it didn’t matter to the average citizen if art is displayed in Berlin, St. Petersburg, Moscow or in Turkey.

According to Berlin’s Humboldt University, the Soviets plundered more than a million books and thousands of works of art at the end of the war. Many pieces have still not been traced and it remains a touchy issue in both countries.

The Hermitage museum exhibition, “The Bronze Age of Europe: Europe Without Borders,” opened to the public Saturday, the anniversary of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union.

According to the Hermitage website, the exhibition includes items from a collection known as Priam’s Treasure, which were discovered by German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann in the 19th century.

Earlier on Friday it had looked as if Merkel’s trip to Russia was going to be eclipsed by a spat over the museum event when a German government spokesman in Berlin, Georg Streiter, said Russia had called off the event, arguing that “it was impossible for the host to find the time.”

German media seized quickly upon the apparent last-minute change of schedule as a likely sign of deteriorating relations between the two countries, proclaiming an “Uproar about looted art” and writing that “Putin is a miserable diplomat.”

Putin later dismissed the speculation of a bust-up, saying the museum trip was going ahead. He said there had been some uncertainty over whether there would be time for the event.

“I think this is a very sensitive question for civil societies in both countries,” Putin said earlier of any art repatriation. “So if we want any progress, we should not blow the problem out of proportion but seek ways to solve it.

“Probably we should not start a discussion now,” he added, “because people will appear on the Russian side who would evaluate the damage done to our art during the Second World War.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 24, 2013, on page 16.

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