2/10/2014 12:27
RIA Novosti

Analysis & Opinion

Captain Baldin's collection and restitution problems

18:44 08/12/2005

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti commentator Anatoly Korolev.) As a result of globalization Russia is increasingly becoming part of the international community, which is ruled by the letter of the law.

The Swiss company Noga recently arrested a collection of paintings from the Pushkin Museum. The Swiss government had to pass a special resolution to cancel the arrest warrant. But this case was an exception. It is one of the aspects of global integration that makes every country comply with certain accepted rules. Almost every museum of the world is at risk of being arrested.

One of the recent examples of this was the demand made by Greece that the U.S. Paul Getty Museum return several Greek vases, amphoras, craters and other exhibits that were stolen from Greece or resold in the 19th and 20th centuries. But the worst is yet to come. Greece has been ransacked more than any other country. The gigantic Altar of Pergamon from the temple of Zeus is now the prized possession of a Berlin museum, where the Market Gate from Miletus and the Earth's pearl, the Ishtar Gate of Nebuchadnezzar II from Babylon, are also displayed. These Berlin sights may soon be proclaimed stolen.

The abovementioned is just a foreword to a story about Captain Baldin.

In 1945, a combat engineer, he found himself in Karnzow castle of Count Koenigsmark outside Brandenburg. In its cellar he saw a strange scene: moving in the dark, soldiers lit their way with burning papers they had picked up from the floor. Baldin recognized the papers as drawings by great artists. He had been a restorer before the war and an authority on paintings. The captain stopped the vandals, closed the cellar and scrutinized the treasures in wrecked boxes. The light of his lantern revealed brilliant drawings by Rafael, Duerer, Rembrandt, Rubens, Goya, Delacroix, Corot, Degas, Rodin, Van Gogh and other remarkable artists.

The valuable collection from the Kunsthalle Museum in Bremen had been brought to Karnzow castle where Soviet soldiers and officers found them. Certainly, the conquerors did not know much about art. Who will accuse them? They knew how to fight. The collection found a guardian angle in the person of a Russian combat engineer.

Baldin had to take away the drawings from soldiers by force, by deception and in exchange for other things. It took him three days to obtain a drawing of Christ's head by Albrecht Duerer from an officer who realized he had got hold of a treasure but was not sure what to do with it. Baldin managed to coax the officer into exchanging the drawing for his chrome boots. That was a bargain!

It was good luck for world art that the officer's feet were Baldin's size.

Baldin's actions are still being debated: who was he - a looter or a guardian angel?

Yes, he cut off the drawings of their mounts, yes, he put them into his leather case, yes, he carried them to Russia and hid the case under the bed in his flat. But he saved the masterpieces. Back in Germany he had put down a description of every painting, copied German signatures and later on documented provenance for every piece.

No doubt, if not for Captain Baldin, the drawings would have perished!

Looters searched for porcelain and bronze, paintings and gold. They thought Baldin was saving trash that could be sold for a pair of boots.

In Russia Baldin had a great life: first, he joined in the restoration of Russia's greatest monastery, the Troitse-Sergiyeva Lavra. Then he was appointed chief architect of the Lavra restoration project. Finally, in 1963, he became director of the Shchusev Research Museum of Architecture in Moscow. He had held the post for 25 years until he retired in 1987.

But all those years, up to his death, Baldin had a sole wish, to return the collection to Germany. He was the first to accuse and convict himself, when nobody was going to do so. After Baldin transferred his collection to the Shchusev Museum, the masterpieces became a Soviet state secret and have been kept away from audiences ever since. Nobody has seen the rescued drawings for 70 years already. (A small exhibition held at the Shchusev Museum in 2003 was insignificant).

Obviously, what haunted the hero of our story was the secrecy. Baldin decided the spell of secrecy would be broken if the drawings were returned to Germany. In 1973, he wrote a letter to Brezhnev and received no answer. In 1987, he appealed to ideologist of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Yegor Ligachev and did not receive any answer either. In 1989, he addressed Gorbachev but in vain. In 1991, Baldin wrote to Yeltsin and received the first reply: yes, the president praised him and agreed it would be politically correct to return the drawings to Germany.

Mind the wording: Yeltsin pointed to the political advantage of the offer, not Baldin's moral rectitude. That's the heart of the matter.

The Baldin collection has been a political issue up to now. The accent is made on the fact that Russia's human losses in the war the fascist Germany had dragged it in were so heavy, the damage to culture so irrevocable and the demographic crisis so hideous that we will never owe anything to anybody and any claims to Russia are immoral and should be settled at once as an exception. Why? Because the war is still going on in Russia's memory.

Baldin did not think so. He thought the war was over.

On the threshold of freedom, at the start of perestroika, he took an unprecedented step during his stay in Bremen, Germany. He met with director of the Kunsthalle Doctor Salzmann. The art critic was shocked to learn the bulk of the collection had survived. With his hands shaking, he reached for the list of the missing masterpieces. Baldin had put pencil marks next to those he had rescued, namely 364 pieces.

Viktor Baldin's name has become history.

Now every website, every related publication or negotiations agenda call what had been the Kunsthalle collection before 1945 the Baldin collection of 1920-1997.

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