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Story of miraculously rescued works of art

The National Art Museum is hosting two exhibitions demonstrating to the public how artefacts can be saved for future generations
The National Art Museum is hosting two exhibitions demonstrating to the public how artefacts can be saved for future generations

The Art of Restoration. Magic of Mastery show is dedicated to the National Art Museum’s 75th birthday and features twenty five 18th and 19th century artworks previously unknown to professionals and art lovers. Among them are oil paintings and icons in tempera, as well as sculptures, porcelain, weaving and graphical art works.

The exhibition is fundamentally innovative, both in the context of the selected works of art and in the presentation. The unique display creates an impression that an object has been borrowed from the restorer’s bench to be returned later to the workshop for completion. Each piece of ancient art is not only witness to the many events of its history, but is also a participant in the personal and universal history that often causes damages to it. Visitors to the show have a unique opportunity to get an overview of the restoration process. It is not so much the result of the restoration that is shown, as much as the process itself, during one moment in time of the work’s daily life. The exhibition discovers the previously hidden layers of the works of art and the features of restoration that make it possible to save historical and cultural monuments from destruction.

The museum’s group of restorers consists of certified professionals who bring pieces of oil painting and ancient Belarusian and decorative-and-applied art back to life. These people also conduct chemical and physical research. The present exposition is almost a report of the work for the anniversary year. The National Art Museum’s Restoration Department employs 19 specialists who are guided not only by their true professionalism, but also their historical interest and delicate sense of beauty and aesthetics. The Art of Restoration. Magic of Mastery exhibition reveals the tricks of the museum restorers’ work. The show features pictures before and after restoration and inspires visitors to the show to feel respect for all those who contribute to the revival of our cultural artefacts. In turn, another exhibition, Rescued Treasures, displays artistic pieces caught by customs officers on the border. “We’ve attempted to show what tricky paths icons, pictures or wooden sculptures might take before our museum obtains them,” explains the exhibition curator, Irina Karpenko. One of these paths is detection on the border while being illegally taken out of the country. Owing to the State Customs Committee’s work, the National Art Museum has received over 300 exhibits; these are primarily Russian icons, copper art casting and Belarus’ altar pictures.

The peak of attempted illegal exports of art objects fell in the 1990s. After the USSR collapse, any control over treasures kept at museums and churches weakened and people wished to make money. They mainly transported artefacts from Russia (through Belarus) to Western Europe: local collectors did not hesitate to buy pieces from smugglers. The cost of rare items, especially 15th to 17th century icons, was high in the West but, in the early 2000s, a reverse trend was registered: coins, ancient weapons and armour were brought to Russia from Western Europe, via Belarusian territory. In the case of legal imports, high taxes must be paid. In addition, the applicant needs to explain how they’ve obtained an artefact. Attempts at smuggling are still being recorded despite measures in place to curtail the crime.

In the 1990s, customs officers often detained huge 1.5m icons sawn into four or six parts. These were put into bags in the hope of being successfully smuggled across the border. Typically, findings of this kind were found at Grodno and Brest customs. Sometimes paintings would be altered to allow them to be taken out of the country, one case was uncovered when criminals covered a picture with a new layer and tried to convince customs officers that it was a painting by a modern artist. Meanwhile, artists selling their works abroad need an export permit from the Culture Ministry. Those wishing to do this legally face no problems.

In another case, a traveller tried to take a Singer collectable sewing machine put of the country, given to them by their grandmother. Even though ignorance of the law is no excuse, they were told it is allowed to use such artefacts at home, but not to export them without permission; this is part of the historic and cultural capital of Belarus. The penalties for illegal exports of cultural treasures depend on what artefacts are being taken away and what method of export is used. Until 1973, all cultural treasures detected by customs officials were destroyed in line with a special order. However, they were later collected, but not put on display in museums. In the mid-1980s, an experimental exhibition of rescued artworks opened for the first time in the USSR: in Brest. It comprised icons, paintings, decorative objects and jewellery. The exhibition received considerable attention and it was then decided to establish a special museum to showcase the artefacts.

Customs officers are not art experts and always invite museum specialists to the border, if necessary. A special list, approved by the Government, exists; this details articles prohibited from being taken out of the country. Among them are all objects produced before 1945. The National Art Museum closely liaises with the State Customs Committee and, in the past, the museum has organised training courses for customs officers: the latter were taught to identify cultural treasures. Specialists, including Irina Karpenko, teach border guards how to distinguish between old and modern icons, among other things. At present, the Customs Affairs Chair of the Belarusian State University’s International Relations Department runs two courses: Customs Control: Cultural Treasures and Attributes of Cultural Treasures. Students get acquainted with the cultural artefacts kept at Belarusian museums and, after graduating and returning back to service, they are ready to efficiently counteract illegal exports.

Many museums in the country now keep a so-called ‘customs collection’. The Grodno Historical and Architectural Museum has a separate department dedicated to such artefacts while a museum of rescued artistic treasures has been established in Brest (all its exhibits have come from confiscated items). Customs also run their own museums and the largest exhibition is kept at Gomel’s customhouse.

Belarus’ National Art Museum has been collaborating with customs agencies for a long time, sharing expertise, offering lectures and thematic classes for staff and students of the Belarusian State University’s Customs Department. In turn, Minsk and other regional customs officials send artefacts detected during smuggling attempts to the museum. As previously mentioned, Brest’s Museum of Rescued Artistic Treasures keeps only exhibits donated by customs, while Grodno’s State Historical-Architectural Museum has a separate hall devoted to the service. Almost all Belarusian museums display confiscated exhibits.

Museum staff also saved historic and cultural monuments during their 1970-1990 scientific expeditions. During the Soviet era, many artefacts kept in closed Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches (then used as warehouses or grain depots) were damaged. Since then hundreds of them have been restored, thanks to the work of dedicated art experts and restorers. A selection of those treasures is being showcased at the National Art Museum’s exhibition.

By Victor Mikhailov
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