Plunder Goes on Tour

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LONDON’S Royal Academy of Arts is drawing excited crowds with its exhibition “From Russia: French and Russian Master Paintings 1870-1925 From Moscow and St. Petersburg.” These 120 Impressionist and Modernist masterpieces couldn’t be shown, however, until Britain acceded to a very unusual condition: that Parliament enact special legislation providing complete immunity to Russia from anyone claiming ownership of these paintings, some of which were seized by the Communists during the Bolshevik Revolution.

Art lovers may be delighted to see artworks long held in secret by Russia, but the sad truth is that the British government and the Royal Academy are now complicit in the theft of private property. If other countries follow Britain’s lead and pass “immunity from seizure” legislation in the hopes of playing host to “From Russia” or similar shows, the results will be far more pernicious than anyone can imagine.

There is, after all, far more at stake than the paintings temporarily hanging in the Royal Academy. Still hidden within Russia are many of the great art treasures that disappeared from Soviet-occupied territory in Europe at the conclusion of World War II. That’s why Russian authorities demanded such extraordinary measures to protect these paintings in Britain. Even the possibility of a restitution case could open up that Pandora’s box, a trove of long-lost art valued by some experts at $15 billion, perhaps more.

Long before the war, Hitler planned underground storage facilities large enough to hold all the artwork the Nazis could systematically plunder from the great European museums and private collections across the continent.

What Hitler began, Stalin finished. From 1945 to 1948, vast trainloads of looted “trophy art” was delivered from areas “liberated” by Soviet troops. It was of no concern to Stalin that Russia had signed the 1907 Hague convention on Land Warfare, which prohibits the plunder of cultural property (it remains in force today). Nor did he care that the Soviets made repeated assurances during Allied conferences that they would respect such property....

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