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
- 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
-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