MOSCOW - The Prosecutor General's Office summoned Culture Minister Mikhail Shvydkoi on Tuesday to hand him an official warning that he faces criminal charges if he goes ahead with a plan to return an art collection to Germany.
The prosecutor's office, which has been investigating the matter over the past few weeks, said the Culture Ministry does not have the authority to decide to hand over the 362 drawings and two paintings that once belonged to the Bremen Kunsthalle.
First Deputy Prosecutor General Yury Biryukov delivered the warning to Shvydkoi.
Another deputy prosecutor, Vladimir Kolsenikov, said Tuesday that Shvydkoi has not signed any orders to return the collection to Germany but if he does he will be charged. It was not immediately clear which charges would be brought.
Culture Ministry officials said Shvydkoi was unavailable for comment and said only he could speak about the issue.
The ministry said last week that the art transfer was on hold after getting a first warning from prosecutors. But Shvydkoi at the time described his contacts with prosecutors as "positive" and said there was a common understanding that the art collection is different from other trophy art seized by Soviet troops in Germany at the end of World War II.
Shvydkoi said the Bremen Kunsthalle artwork was brought to Russia by an individual, Captain Viktor Baldin, and thus subject to the law on import and export of art rather than the law on the restitution of trophy art, which declares all such art Russian property.
Shvydkoi told Ekho Mosvky radio last week that the plan had been to return the collection to Germany as a goodwill gesture, and Germany would have handed over 20 pieces of art selected by State Hermitage Museum director Mikhail Piotrovsky.
The Baldin collection was scheduled to go on exhibit in Bremen in late March, Izvestia reported.
The plan, which was announced by Shvydkoi during a visit to Germany in early March, sparked an uproar in the State Duma. Deputies last Tuesday unanimously passed an appeal to President Vladimir Putin urging him to stop the handover.
The head of the Duma's culture and tourism committee, Nikolai Gubenko, said the Baldin collection would be just the beginning.
Baldin, an art restorer by profession, gave his collection to the Architecture Museum in 1948. He pioneered the trophy art debate in the early 1990s when he told of how he took part of the collection from the basement of an aristocratic hunting lodge and bought the rest from other soldiers. The collection includes pieces by Titian, Duerer, Rembrandt, Delacroix, Rodin and Van Gogh.
Baldin repeatedly said that he wanted the collection to be restored to its original owners in Bremen. He has since died. Shvydkoi said the collection is worth $30 million to $35 million. Gubenko put the value at $1.5 billion.
The issue of trophy art is highly sensitive for many Russians, who consider the art looted from Germany as compensation for Soviet losses in World War II. There also is concern that Germany will not return any art its soldiers took from Russia, because most of it is held in private collections.