Project ‘Returned Masterpieces’

The project ‘Returned Masterpieces’ was implemented at the National Art Museum of the Republic of Belarus within the Year of Historical Memory. It was a part of the exhibition ‘Never Again!’ dedicated to the genocide of the Belarusian people during the Great Patriotic War.

It was intended to mark those works from the collection of the National Art Museum of the Republic of Belarus, then the State Picture Gallery in Minsk (1939–1941), which in 1941 and during the occupation of Minsk were taken by the Nazis to Germany to create the Fuhrer Museum in Linz (Hitler’s hometown). They were returned to their homeland in the late 1940s.

On the eve of large-scale hostilities in Europe, the Nazi government drew up a special program to confiscate cultural and artistic property in the conquered countries. Reichsleiter Alfred Rosenberg became a Reich Minister for the occupied Eastern territories in 1941. In accordance with this program, he created various societies and organizations, on the instructions of which high-ranking specialists traveled to the occupied countries to compile lists of evaluation, inventory, and most importantly, the export of someone else’s national treasure – the most valuable collections and items subject to confiscation.

The events that took place in the State Art Gallery (Minsk, 1941) testify that this collection was of interest to the Nazi, and it was ranked among a number of large and valuable ones. The gallery building on 29 Karl Marx Street survived during the first bombing and fires in the summer of 1941. However, the premises served for the most part for the quartering of the German division. Numerous valuable paintings were confiscated by the Wehrmacht to decorate officers’ clubs, etc. A lot of other paintings were stored in a dark room on the first floor waiting to be delivered to Königsberg.

There were too many occupiers who wanted to appropriate the Minsk collections among the various departments, and there was rivalry between them. The best items of applied art and paintings, as evidenced by the documents, were confiscated by the occupying authorities of the city. Valuable collections were sent to the Reich and Königsberg.

The collection of the Art Gallery was practically dispersed by September 1941. Much was taken out by Wehrmacht officers in an unknown direction. Something remained in German organizations in Minsk. Three wooden sculptures by Minsk sculptor Aleksandr Grube were preserved in the surviving gallery building, which the Nazis could not destroy because of their too large size, and because of their unbearable weight. The marble sculpture of Mercury, which was considered the work by Bertel Thorvaldsen and transferred to the capital of BSSR from the Rumyantsev-Paskevich Palace in Gomel in 1939 remained untouched.

The collection of the gallery ceased to exist, and its loss can be called irretrievable. The fate of the pre-war collection of the State Art Gallery is still unknown. The search for it is hampered by the lack of an inventory book or a complete catalogue of pre-war museum exhibits, which could be an unconditional proof that the Museum Fund of the BSSR belonged to the state collection.

Nevertheless, some steps to record and search for the lost were taken during the hostilities and in subsequent years. Already in 1944, on behalf of the government, the acting director of the gallery Yelena Aladova and Moscow researcher Nikolay Mashkovtsev compiled an inventory – an 89-page document based on information from exhibition catalogues, articles, acts of transfer to the State Art Gallery from museums in Moscow and Leningrad, memoirs of employees. Short data on the State Art Gallery was provided to the Belarusian government by it, signed by P. Pestrak, head of the Department of Arts under the Council of People’s Commissars of the Byelorussian SSR (1943–1945), on the basis of the act of inspection of the gallery building.

The ‘Inventory of museum treasures taken by the Nazis to Germany and to the countries of its accomplices and destroyed as a result of robbery actions’ (1944), compiled by museum employees who returned from evacuation, includes 223 works of Russian painting, 32 of Western European art, furniture from the ‘Blue Bedroom’ of Aleksandr II in the Winter Palace, 60 icons (16th–18th centuries), 89 works of sculpture, 48 Slutsk belts, 480 items of Russian porcelain, 800 of Western European, 30 items of ancient Urechye glass, 200 hand-made ‘beds’ of Belarusian weavers, hundreds of works of Belarusian artists in the late 19th – early 20th century.

After the end of the war in Germany, the allied forces found more than 1.500 caches of museum exhibits from Germany and other countries. They discovered valuables in secret vaults, castles, mines in Bavaria and took them to collection points in Munich, Offenbach and Wiesbaden. From there, on the basis of special requirement cards (‘declarations’), which were filled out by employees of the Department of Reparations and Supply of the Soviet Military Administration in Germany (SVAG), the USSR valuables were transferred to the Derutra warehouse in Berlin.

2391 boxes of valuables were transferred to the warehouse and loaded into 19 wagons by October 24, 1947. The carriages went to Pushkin, Novgorod, Kyiv, and two carriages with 182 boxes went to Minsk. The study and decision of the future fate of the cultural property returned to the USSR took several years. A detailed inventory with the determination of the cost of each exhibit was carried out by a special commission in Minsk on the basis of the Museum of the History of the Great Patriotic War established in 1944.

The documents in the National Archives of the Republic of Belarus (in fund No. 790 ‘Committee for Cultural and Educational Institutions under the Council of Ministers of the BSSR’) made it possible to lift the veil over this important tragic page in the history of museology and Belarusian culture as a whole. These documents are invaluable for the museum business. They include an inventory of the boxes sent to Minsk, received from the Derutra warehouse and handed over to M. O. Kalnitsky, the authorized representative of the Council of Ministers of the BSSR, as the property of the Byelorussian SSR.

All the historical and cultural treasures received in December 1947 were kept for a long time in the funds of the Museum of the History of the Great Patriotic War, and they were transferred from there in the late 1940s – 1960s to the State Museum of the BSSR (1957) and the State Art Gallery of the BSSR, restored in 1944.

What part of the exported pre-war art heritage returned to Belarus? What was in the boxes? The answer to the questions is given first of all by the reference ‘The main museum collections and collections returned from Germany by the Soviet military administration in November 1947’ signed by U. Venyukov, the head of the museum department of the Committee for Cultural Heritage under the Council of Ministers of the BSSR.

Only some exhibits of Belarusian culture from the funds of the State Art Gallery returned to their homeland: 

– a collection of icons, among which were extremely valuable works of ancient Belarusian art (the icons of the Mogilev school, etc.);

– a collection of ancient Belarusian wooden cult carvings in the 17th–18th centuries;

– applied art – furniture, porcelain and bronze (arrived in a badly damaged condition and required restoration);

– a significant collection of the Radziwiłł family (more than 50 portraits);

– a number of works by Belarusian artists, mainly of the 1920s and 1930s: Mikhail Filipovich, Vladimir Sukhoverkhov, Monos Monoszon, Matvey Belenitsky, Lev Leitman, as well as works by older artists: Yehuda Pen, Lev Alperovich, Abram Brazer and Yakov Kruger;

– church utensils, mostly from the 17th–18th centuries, in a badly damaged condition;

– part of the works by artists of the Russian school, which belonged to the State Art Gallery before the war (Isaac Levitan, Abram Arkhipov, Aleksandr Golovin, Mikhail Bashilov, etc.).

Unfortunately, only a small part of the items collected in the pre-war period, about 500 out of 2711, about a sixth of the collection, returned to the State Art Gallery. And only a tenth of them – about 50 returned works – entered the modern exposition of the museum.

These unique exhibits are marked with a special inscription: ‘Returned masterpieces with ‘red stars’ – the emblem of the Red Army, the winner of fascism. The star symbolizes the gratitude of descendants for the return of the artistic heritage.

The marked works, the real ‘stars’ of our museum, are among the most valuable exhibits. The museum staff pays special attention to them on excursions, telling their hard war history.

In general, the project allowed visitors to immerse themselves in the dramatic war history of the museum in the first half of the 20th century, watch and appreciate the most valuable of the numerous museum exhibits belonging to the pre-war collection.


The curator of the project is Nadezhda Usova, a leading researcher of the Department of Scientific and Educational Work in the National Art Museum

Photos by Nadezhda Barkun