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The Arts

The Spoils of War
By Olga Slobodkina
The Pushkin Museum is currently displaying Tarquin and Lucretia, by Peter Paul Rubens (15771640). This is a great Rubens, depicting a subject from classical mythology. The greatness of the painting, however, has been equally matched by the scandal surrounding the ownership of the picture; a scandal which has also been of mythic proportions. Art experts agree that it is worth around $100 million.

Peter Paul Rubens: Tarquin and Lucretia
(section, pre-restoration)

First, about the picture itself. For the subject of this painting Rubens used an ancient Roman story of the death of the chaste Lucretia who was raped by Sextus, son of the king Tarquin the Proud, the last ruler of Rome, from 616 until 578. Lucretia could not live with the shame and committed suicide. Before this, however, she told her husband of what had happened. The subsequent brouhaha brought about a revolt in Rome led by Brutus, and Tarquin was expelled from Rome.

The Roman writers Ovid and Livy both wrote about the event; later, Shakespeare also. The combination of male sexual passion and female virtuousness was a popular subject for many painters, with its obvious opportunities for dramatic effect.

Judging by its monumental character and the lush palette of colours, experts believe that the painting was executed by Rubens during the years 16001611; the years when the artist had recently returned from Italy, where he had had a great success. Now, he was looking to make an impression in his home town Antwerp.

This grand canvas (187,3 x 214,3 cm) is now hanging in the Dutch section at the Pushkin Museum next to other works of the great master, and it can be counted as one of his most important masterpieces. It is only after a long restoration process, however, that we can see how beautiful a picture it is. When the painting was taken in for restoration at the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg it was badly damaged. The restoration has been years in the process, and the result is a triumph both for Rubens and for the restorer. Art experts agree that it is worth around euro 80m ($104 million).

Peter Paul Rubens (15771640):
Self-portrait, 1639

Now for the scandal. Not only was Lucretia mysteriously raped in ancient Rome, but the Rubens Lucretia itself mysteriously vanished from Germany during the Second World War. The fact that such a famous painting can disappear is all the more surprising given the fact that until war broke out, it had such a well documented history. Frederick the Great bought it in 1765 for his collection, and the painting was on public view until 1942 in a gallery in Potsdam.

According to several newspaper reports the Rubens painting disappeared from a castle on the outskirts of Berlin in 1945 as the Red Army advanced on the German capital. It appears that a Soviet army officer took the painting for himself in April 1945 when the Red Army was overwhelming Nazi Germany. But how did the painting find its way from Potsdam to a Berlin suburb? Other reports say that the house where the Rubens was hanging belonged to Joseph Goebbels, where it had been displayed in a bedroom. How Goebbels came to own the picture is also in question. However it was, the painting then disappeared. It appears to have remained in the Soviet officer's family for decades until his daughter sold it for a few hundred dollars after his death.

In 2003 a group of Russian businessmen e-mailed a photograph of the picture anonymously to a German art expert, Gerhardt Bartoschek. They wanted to sell it. The painting was in poor condition and had clearly been rolled up; but it appeared to be the real thing. Mr Bartoschek, however, happened to be the director of the very same Potsdam gallery where the painting had been hanging before it was taken to the USSR. He immediately alerted the German police. At the same time he also offered to send a team to Moscow to confirm the painting's authenticity.

In June 2003 the Russian gang agreed, and two German art historians set off for Moscow. After a round of telephone calls and cloak and dagger negotiations worthy of a TV series, the experts were driven to a private house somewhere in the east of the city and shown into a room locked with a reinforced door. There the gang pulled off a white sheet to reveal the painting. The experts were able to compare it with the last black and white photograph of the painting. They agreed, it was the missing Rubens.

Peter Paul Rubens: Tarquin and Lucretia

The Germans have been trying to get the Rubens back ever since. The Russian businessman who now says he "owns" the painting, Vladimir Logvinenko, insists he bought it legitimately in 1999 from a Russian antiques dealer. In 2003, Logvinenko, who was refusing to give back the picture, was threatened with legal action. His cause was helped when Russia's prosecutor general's office then ruled that Mr Logvinenko was the Rubens' rightful owner, and also said that he did not break any Russian law in acquiring it. In 2004, Lognivenko had yet more of a defence when a court in Germany ruled that the German government itself had not produced enough evidence to show that the Rubens had been stolen.

Nevertheless, the return of the missing (or stolen, if one is in Germany) Rubens soon became a political hot potato. The former German Chancellor Gerhardt Schroeder brought up the subject of returning the picture with President Putin, when Schroder was still in office; but the picture is still in Moscow. There is still a lot of illwill when the subject of war booty is being discussed between the two countries. Many Russians regard the spoils of war taken from Nazi Germany, as compensation for the devastation caused by Hitler's invasion. Germany has been negotiating with Russia since 1991 for the restitution of some 200,000 artefacts; while Russia has claims on icons and other artworks stolen by German troops earlier in the war.

It is not a happy story. If you go to see the painting and what can be better than going to a museum just to see one picture try to forget about the politics, and enjoy the picture for itself. Spare a thought, please, for poor Lucretia.

Puskin Museum of Fine Arts
Peter Paul Rubens: Tarquin and Lucretia
December 22, 2006, through April 30, 2007

12 Ul. Volkhonka, M. Kropotkinskaya,
10:00 to 19:00, closed Mon.,
Tel.: 203-7998

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