Excavations at the Royal Castle site. Photo by D. Vyshemirskii, 2005


From the history of lost and found cultural heritage

Avenir Ovsianov / Kaliningrad, Russia

Koenigsberg was not only the capital of East Prussia, but also its main museum town. The city possessed numerous art collections, including those in the Order Castle, the Wrangel Tower Treasury, Albertina University, the Museum of Arts and Crafts, the Academy of Arts, the State amber manufacturer, the Cathedral on Kneiphof Island, and in various churches. Numerous mansions, town and village churches, private museums and amber workshops also possessed cultural valuables.

Where are they today? What happened to the famous museums, libraries, and art collections? Unfortunately, there is no definitive answer, and the issue needs thorough study.

Certainly, we may assume that all the museum exhibits were transported to central parts of Germany before the war. But analysis of present day holdings from East Prussian museums in Duisburg, Luneburg, Gottingen and others towns, and their comparison with Koenigsberg's pre-war catalogues shows that there are no major Koenigsberg art collections there.

Naturally, there were losses during the bombings of storage places and during transportation. Other artworks were stolen and turned out to be in private collections. But where is the rest of the treasure?

Documents, which are available at the Department on the Search for Cultural Valuables at the Science and Production Center on the Preservation and Use of Monuments of History and Culture, enable us to partially answer this question and to even track collections of art, some monuments and book collections.

Tracing cultural valuables is not easy, due to the post-war custom of registering pieces of national heritage in tons, pieces, rolls, and truckloads. Here are some examples:

In the summer of 1945 paintings and drawings by Renaissance artists (Michelangelo, Justi, Cambiaso, Albani and others) were removed from the Koenigsberg Academy of Arts and taken to the east. The deed of conveyance to the Pushkin State Museum in Moscow (where they are presently stored, editor's note) only provides the number of artworks, 139.

A tragic fate befell cultural valuables that were concentrated in the Order Castle in Koenigsberg. Artworks that were not hidden in the cellars or transported to dugouts, fortresses and mansions were destroyed during bombing by Anglo-American Aviation Forces. The exhibits of the Minsk Museum - 18th century paintings, porcelain manufactured in St Petersburg and Berlin, antique furniture, and Soviet artworks were also destroyed in flames. In those days part of the Amber Room was destroyed as well. The exhibits of the Prussian Museum, which had been transported to Fortress 3, were looted during the summer of 1945. Only a few samples that did not attract the attention of looters were discovered hidden in the cellars in 1999-2001. A significant quantity of valuables was found in the castle cellars during its demolition during the 1950s-1970s.

A significant amount of cultural valuables was found in the summer of 1945 by Professor A. Brusov, a staff member of the Historical Museum and a member of the brigade for Cultural Organization Affairs of the Council of People's Commissars RSFSR. All of these valuables were packed into 60 boxes. 25 were prepared for shipment to Moscow, and the remainder was supposed to be left for the local museum of regional studies.

Among the hundreds of exhibits were: woodcuts from the era of Durer Epoch and from the Verrocchio Workshop; paintings by Cignanelli, Lulen Lenteu, and by the Russian artists Prince Grigorii Gagarin, Filippov, Dementiev and many unknown artists; sculptures by S. Kauer and Gaul; glazed pottery from the 17th and 18th centuries; porcelain from Berlin, Saint Petersburg, China, and England; Japanese fine art; marble busts by Adolfo Wildt (1868 -1931); and liturgical implements made of precious metal and stained glass from the 16th to 19th centuries. Among the recovered items were exhibits from Kiev, Dnepropetrovsk and Polish museums.

These artworks also experienced a tragic fate. Having prepared all the necessary documents for transport, A. Brusov consigned 60 boxes of valuables to the military guard at the house of the former Koenigsberg State Archives (now the Regional Research Library). These valuables did not reach their destination. An investigation revealed that they were looted in autumn 1945. The valuables assigned to the local museum were also lost. The detailed contents of these boxes were identified only in 1994. During the immediate post-war months a group from the Committee for Cultural Organization Affairs of the Council of People's Commissars RSFSR headed by T. Beliaeva worked in the destroyed Koenigsberg. The major part of their findings consisted of library collections. Among them were works by Avicenna (an Arabian physician and philosopher of the 11th century), works by Kant, an Indian studies library, the private collection of Dr. Max Hein (one-time director of the Koenigsberg State Archives), antique printed books, the archives of the Old Prussian Don family, and part of the Wallenrodt and Albertina University library.

There were also Gospels, albums, engravings, incunabula, antique prints and catalogues from all Koenigsberg museums, and editions of works by Ovid, Vitruvius, Homer and other ancient authors.

The location of these "trophies" is only partially known. Unique books from the Wallenrodt Library were distributed among libraries in Moscow, Leningrad, Novosibirsk and Voronezh.

The collections of the Koenigsberg Albertina University and its institutions turned out to be in the research library of Voronezh State University. The library of a governmental and military personality that was found by Soviet "fortune hunters" in the summer of 1945 in Waldau (Nizovie) is now located in St Petersburg.

The most prominent cultural valuables were transported from Koenigsberg in 1945 by a brigade of the Committee for Cultural Affairs headed by N. Sergievskaia. In the brigade's reports we may read the following descriptions: "The 17th century. Silver - 21, bronze - 12, china -14, glazed pottery -25, crystal -2, stained glass - 5, marble - 2, paintings - 14, other -21." This type of scientific description of cultural heritage is typical of all the expeditions, group and brigades that worked in post-war Koenigsberg.

Recently a seminar devoted to amber research was held in Kaliningrad. Our colleagues from Poland and Germany stated that there were thousands of unique pieces of amber with inclusions at their disposal. We, living in the area with the largest deposits of amber in the world, could not make similar claims.

Yet a major part of the world-renown Koenigsberg amber collection of the geo-paleontological Albertina Institute was found in summer 1945 by Professor A. Briusov on the Lange Reihe (present day Barnaulskaia Street). This collection was comprised of 110 000 unique amber pieces.

It is perfectly well known, that Karl Andre, the institute's director, managed to transport only 17,000 samples to Gottingen in February 1945. Where are the rest? A. Briusov concisely reported about their destination: "The collection of amber samples from all over the world, one of the best collections of its type, is to be sent to Moscow."

Recent investigations have shown that the amber did not arrive in Moscow, but was looted within the first post-war months in Koenigsberg. A large part of the cultural valuables was transported from Koenigsberg by different trophy teams, by makeshift offices of the State Bank, financial and political departments of military units and formations, by officers of sub-units and commanders of all the levels, and by the first wave of immigrants. Apparently, we will never know their fate.

Many of the valuables are now in private collections, and from time to time they go on sale in antique shops. Pieces of cultural heritage, including those transported to Koenigsberg from occupied regions of the Soviet Union, are still decorating apartments, offices, military headquarters and institutions.

From time to time volumes from the Wollenrodt Library and even canvases from the Dresden Gallery (which also had Koenigsberg connections) are placed on sale in Kaliningrad and in other Russian cities. These include cupid figures from the Koenigsberg Museum of Nature, books from the University Library, statues from parks and palaces, geological and numismatic collections, unique dining sets (including a set from the palace restaurant of Blutgericht) and many more.

Only a tiny part of the above-mentioned happened to be stored in the Kaliningrad Museum of History and Arts. The process of replacement of Koenigsberg artworks is still on-going.

The search for cultural treasures in Koenigsberg and then in Kaliningrad began in April 1945, right after the assault of Koenigsberg, and still goes on, interrupted by short breaks.

Unfortunately, this research has never been a priority for the State. For years it has had the character of ordinary treasure hunting, duplication of efforts, the absence of any coordinating or monitoring body, an accidental choice of exploration sites, poor technical and transport equipment, and also the absence of financial as well as legal grounds.

"Secret" expeditions worked in "secret" Kaliningrad region. Hence, archives that contained information about the transportation and relocation of cultural valuables were not accessible to researchers.

Yet the search for lost valuables continues. Old fortresses, castles, underground shelters, bunkers, and former mansions attract the attention of hunters, as do already unclassified archives, private collections and antique shops in Russia. During the past few years the exhibits of the Koenigsberg Prussia Museum have been found, the location of hundreds of paintings thought to be lost has been identified, the archives of the High Command of the German Army of World War II have been extracted from the cellars and much more has been accomplished.

Translation by O. Zayachkovskaya

Excavations at the Royal Castle site. Photo by D. Vyshemirskii, 2005