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Interview in "The GAZETTE"
12 March 2003

- The Hermitage is giving over to the Ministry of Culture the very same items which, in essence, opened the public dialogue over transferred valuables. It was precisely the Hermitage exhibition of the Baldin Collection in 1992 that touched off the discussion of trophy art…
- The Ministry of Culture exercised its right to demand these items insofar as at a certain time it was the Ministry that handed them over to the Hermitage. I must say that the Baldin Collection was of signal importance for the entire issue of trophy art. The USSR Ministry of Culture transferred it to the Hermitage secretly. All of our work was carried out under conditions of the ‘normal study’ of secret collections.

- In 1992 you became the director of the Hermitage and made your debut at this post with the decision to exhibit transferred valuables – precisely the Baldin Collection.
-Yes, at that time all questions relating to transferred valuables were given a public airing for the first time. We had to apply considerable effort, to work with the press and with our German colleagues in order for this gesture of good will to be correctly understood and not seen as the first step to immediate and obligatory return of these items to Germany. (By the way, a splendid catalogue of the exhibition was published by the Kultura Publishing House, which was then headed by Mikhail Shvydkoi!) Everyone in Germany and in Russia was supposed to understand and recognize that the presentation of these items to the public was a first correct gesture of good will. The entire collection being held in Russia should firstly be ‘returned’ to museum visitors. And only after this step can one discuss its further fate. Moreover such discussion is possible only without apriori demands of return. You must understand that we don’t owe anything to anyone.
Back then in the beginning of the ‘90’s our point of view became very widely known in Germany and received broad support from the German intelligentsia. And as a continuation of the dialogue we began to prepare new exhibitions, in particular “Unknown Treasures” from private German collections which had come our way. Then there was the joint exhibition entitled “Schliemann. Petersburg – Troy.” There are negotiations about other possible exhibitions. The Hermitage is proud that not only was it the first to formulate this principle of ‘glasnost’ or openness with respect to the transferred art but also we confirmed our fidelity to this practice. Only after scholarly discussion and study of items coming from trophy art, after they are shown to visitors from the public, can there be talk of their future fate.
Now let’s talk about the Baldin Collection. At the time, in 1992, this was an event which had a major political side to it and we succeeded in dealing with it; it was a very important cultural affair. That is to say we put the accent on the right things and correctly set our priorities. There are various counterparts to art: art as a political tool; art as money; art as art, meaning a universal cultural property. Our job is to work with art as art.

-The Baldin Collection was brought here by the man himself, without any documents and formally it cannot be considered as an object of compensatory restitution.
- The collection indeed was imported without documentary formalities, and this fact tormented Baldin. Let us remember that Baldin saved the collection, for otherwise it would simply have been split up and taken in different directions and the local people, from whom the German police later took away just this sort of ‘scavenged’ items or it would be taken by the Occupation troops. When Russia began to show off its trophy art, people in the whole world began to recollect that in all sorts of museums there are things which came their way after some war as the result of, shall we say, …military tumult. This includes items from private collections confiscated by the Nazis and then sold on the art markets of Europe and America. This is something that the people who hint everything gone missing ended up in Russia for some reason keep silent about. I wish to repeat: we don’t owe anyone anything and we make our decisions acting out of good will.

-The Hermitage both in practice and on the basis of law reports to the Ministry of Culture. Especially in certain Western circles you have the reputation of a man who is at a minimum cautious with respect to the return of trophy art. How do you feel about the prospects for return home to Germany of Bremen’s Kunsthalle collection?
-We regard the subject of return very cautiously and very calmly. Such issues can be resolved if you take as your point of departure general artistic interest and the need to observe all formalities, including legal ones. It was always clear that a decision about the fate of the Baldin Collection had to be taken. For the Hermitage two circumstances have fundamental importance: the sense of our own innocence and the conviction that the subject is useful to the museum and artistic communities of the world.

- Now the Hermitage will hand over the collection to the Ministry of Culture and in this way from the standpoint of law it sheds its responsibility for the collection’s future fate. But de facto how does it work?
-The Hermitage would offer as its optimal version an exchange of gestures of good will. We are always working on formulas to reduce the tension that arises in such cases. We do not make the decisions, but we can formulate proposals and discuss them. The return of trophy art today is a gesture of good will by our state. And we fully hope for corresponding actions from the other side. To be sure, nothing spontaneous, but actions that have been well prepared in detail.

- Can we expect that part of the collection will one day come back to Russia, to the Hermitage after it has been returned to Bremen?
- I think we have reason to hope that a gesture of good will towards the Hermitage will be forthcoming from Bremen.

The internet address of this interview: http://www.gzt.ru/rubricator.gzt?rubric=reviu&id=31550000000007262

 

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