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Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities Investigations
10/22/2008

Hermitage artworks catalog, stolen by Nazis, returned to Russia

MOSCOW - Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Attaché Moscow and U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Beyrle today returned to Russian authorities a rare Russian book entitled, Catalog of the Art Gallery of the Emperor's Hermitage.

The art recorded in the catalog was assembled over more than a century, beginning in the 1700s, as the private collection of Catherine the Great. The catalog, which listed the holdings of the collection, itself dates to 1889. Nazi soldiers stole the catalog from Catherine's Gatchina Palace outside St. Petersburg, which was a museum at the time, during World War II.

In 2007, the Russian government alerted ICE Attaché Moscow to the online sale of the book on a Chicago-based website. ICE agents visited the home of the website operator, where they were given several items that were listed for sale on the website, including the Russian catalog.

ICE agents determined that the book appeared to match a description provided by Russian authorities. Distinctive ink and pencil markings in the book's brown binding included a stamp bearing a pre-revolutionary inventory number and another inventory number assigned by Russian authorities in the 1920's. In December 2007, agents formally seized the book and worked with Russian authorities to verify its authenticity. In January 2008, a Russian cultural scholar positively identified the catalog as the same book described in the Gatchina Palace Museum Inventory.

Gatchina Palace, built in 1766 and purchased in 1783 by Catherine the Great for her son, Emperor Paul I, was one of the main imperial residences until the Russian Revolution in 1917. After the Revolution, like many royal residences, the palace was nationalized and became a museum. During World War II, the German army made Gatchina Palace one of its headquarters buildings. During the German withdrawal, the palace was severely damaged, although much of the artwork had been evacuated.

Since the end of the war, some of the original Gatchina Palace artwork has been recovered and returned to the palace. Restoration began immediately following World War II and is still in progress, although the palace reopened to the public in 1985.

Cultural artifacts, such as the catalog, illegally brought into the United States are subject to the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act (CCPI). The CCPI Act allows the United States to impose import restrictions on archaeological or ethnological material when pillage of these materials places a nation's cultural heritage in jeopardy.

The book is the latest cultural property that ICE agents have seized and returned to their rightful country in recent years. Some other cases investigated by ICE include:

  • In one of the largest repatriations to date, on Sept. 15, 2008, ICE returned 1,044 cultural antiquities to the Government of Iraq that were seized in four separate investigations dating to 2001. The items, which included terra cotta cones inscribed in Cuneiform text, a praying goddess figurine that was once imbedded in a Sumerian temple and coins bearing the likenesses of ancient emperors, are an illustration of the long and varied history of the country now known as Iraq. Remnants of ancient Cuneiform tablets, which were seized by the Customs Service in 2001, were recovered from beneath the ruins of the World Trade Center in 2001 and will be restored in Iraq. The objects were turned over in a ceremony at the Embassy of Iraq, where Iraqi Ambassador Samir Shakir al-Sumaydi accepted on behalf of his government.
  • On July 8, 2008, in a Miami ceremony, ICE returned to the Colombian 60 artifacts that were seized in a joint 2005 investigation with the Broward County, Fla., Sheriff's Office. The artifacts, which included ancient pottery, gold pieces and emeralds, some as old as 500 B.C., were stolen from Colombia and smuggled into the United States. The artifacts' ages and authenticity were confirmed by University of Florida's Dr. Carol Damian. ICE agents arrested and charged a 66-year-old Italian national, Ugo Bagnato, with sale and receipt of stolen goods. He was convicted and served 17 months in federal prison, after which he was deported.
  • In a special program at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C., May 22, 2008, ICE officials turned over to the Afghan national museum director, Omara Masoudi, eight items that had been illegally removed from Afghanistan and smuggled into the United States. The items, including the metal remnants of a spear, two axes, a dagger and knife blades, were authenticated by Dr. Paul Jett, lead scientist and conservator at the Smithsonian Institute, as dating to 2000 B.C., a period in Afghanistan known as the Bactrian Bronze Age. They were probably from excavations at burial sites in northern Afghanistan. The objects were the subject of a "Dateline NBC" 2005 undercover operation for the television show. "Dateline" turned them over to ICE. Unfortunately, at the time, Afghan cultural artifacts were not protected by the 1970 UNESCO Convention on Cultural Property Protection. The country signed the pact in 2007, allowing the repatriation to take place.

ICE's Office of International Affairs and Office of Investigation work to identify and return items of cultural and historical value to their countries of origin. ICE attaches in over 50 locations around the world work closely with their host governments, the State Department and U.S. Customs and Border protection to identify antiquities that are smuggled into the United States.