Russian display of looted German treasures fails to end row over ownership

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MOSCOW -- Berlin lay in smouldering ruins. Hitler had been dead for four weeks. The Soviet Union was the undisputed master of eastern Europe. Working in great secrecy, some Red Army soldiers embarked on a delicate mission: to spirit back home unique cultural treasures belonging to the vanquished Germans.

In June 1945, three chests holding 1,538 gold and silver items were loaded on to a Moscow-bound plane. For more than half a century German experts had little clue as to whether the gold necklaces and eagle brooches dating from the 5th to 8th centuries still existed or had been lost in the second world war.

Today, however, the Merovingian-era pieces emerge spectacularly from their dingy hiding place. Moscow's Pushkin State Museum for Fine Arts is exhibiting the treasures, last seen in Berlin in 1939...

Yesterday Germany's culture minister, Bernd Neumann, hailed the exhibition as "sensational", saying it offered a blueprint as to how seemingly intractable cultural disputes could be resolved. Germany still [wants] the items back, [but] Russia's culture minister, Alexander Sokolov, [swept] aside the ownership question...[and] there seems little chance the items will ever find their way back to Germany. In 1998, Russia's state duma passed a law asserting the country's right to hang on to anything seized by Stalin's Soviets from the Germans.

Yesterday, experts said that despite the dispute over ownership, the treasures -- including exquisite scabbards decorated with minute gold beading, dainty multi-coloured glass necklaces, engraved spearheads, gold goblets, jewelled bird-shaped brooches, and an intriguing bronze buckle of a wolf terrifying a man -- offered a rare portrait of early medieval Europe.

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