MOSCOW, AUG. 16 -- In a cramped apartment packed with the icons and medallions of a life in art and war, Viktor Baldin remembers how in a bombed-out village outside Berlin 45 years ago he traded his army boots for a drawing by Albrecht Durer, a master of the 16th century.
Baldin, 72, a retired architect who spends his days writing the history of Russian Orthodox monasteries, has stunned the art world with his announcement that he is returning 362 masterworks to a West German museum after he rescued the drawings and watercolors from a cas- tle cellar in the final days of World War II. "The war was an episode, but the art is eternal," he said at his home this afternoon. "I knew what I had to do. I had to save it all and, one day, return it to where it came from." So much was lost forever. The woods were literally filled with art. Once, Baldin came across a pile of drawings in the forest, "but it was winter, and by that time it was a heap of wet wash. Who knows what we will never see?"
All through the Cold War, it was considered diplomatically impossible for him and Soviet officials to reveal their secret. Until now, Baldin's discovery was hidden away: first in a trunk under his bed, and then, for four decades, in the vault of the architecture museum here.
Over the years, dealers from other Western countries came offering fortunes to Baldin. "I was appalled and cut the discussion off right there," he said. "Look, I know what goes on in New York these days. I have never been an especially well-off man; no car, no dacha. I suppose if I had sold off just one drawing no one would have known and I could have had it all. But how do I do that? How can they?"
It was not until relations with West Germany eased last year that Baldin and the government decided to make the offer they had waited two generations to make: all the pictures back to the Kunsthalle museum in Bremen, no questions asked. The director of the Kunsthalle, Siegfried Salzmann, says he expects the bureaucratic work will allow for the move this fall.
"Now I'm one of the few men you will ever meet who lived to see their dreams fulfilled," Baldin said.
In the last weeks of the war, Baldin was a 25-year-old captain in the Red Army "aching to get home." One day, one of his officers asked him to help find a headquarters for the general staff. About 90 miles outside Berlin, the troops found a half-ruined castle and set about setting up their headquarters.
Some of the soldiers in the company knew Baldin was an architect with a background in art, and they approached him for advice.
"Come down to the basement," they said. "We want you to take a look at something."
In a huge, damp, windowless room there were hundreds of drawings, strewed about like so many leaves after an autumn storm. They were heaped in mounds, scattered against the walls. Later Baldin would realize that, fearing bombing raids, the Germans had emptied museums, including the Kunsthalle, and stored invaluable artwork in salt mines and basements such as this one. They would send drawings to one place, paintings to another, sculptures to another.
As he sorted through the drawings, many of them damp and in danger of ruin, Baldin realized he was in the midst of an unimaginable treasure: drawings by Rembrandt, Corot, Raphael, Rubens, Delacroix, Durer, Goya, Monet, Manet; van Gogh's sketch for "Starry Night." He asked his superiors for a car to help take all the art from Germany to the Soviet Union for restoration.
"We'd like to help you out, but there are just not enough cars," one officer told him. "Do as you see fit, but we can't do much more than that." Baldin realized he would have to carry the drawings out on his own.
"I had to start making choices, because I just could not carry everything," he said. "I had to cast aside landscapes and hundreds more works that I could not identify or didn't compare with the cream of what we had discovered." Baldin put a few hundred drawings in a big suitcase. He kept the case with him wherever he went. As the troops were preparing for their trip home, Baldin discovered that some soldiers had taken a drawing or two "for a keepsake."
"Mostly they liked the nudes, and they'd pin them up on their tents," he said. "When I saw a valuable one, I'd trade them something for it: a belt, a watch, a gunny sack or something. Maybe 40 or 50 rubles or so for a Corot and a Degas. The last trade I made was a pair of army boots for a Durer. A head of Christ. Just beautiful. Unfortunately, the drawing was a little damaged because the soldier had been keeping it in the bottom of his suitcase."
By the time Baldin had packed his suitcase full of 362 drawings, he had, among other things, 28 Durers. On the Western art market, a single drawing by Durer is usually worth at least $1 million.
Baldin had culled just a tiny portion of the Kunsthalle's collection of 4,000 works. More than 1,500 are still missing. Salzmann, however, says the collection of Durers was the "jewel" of the collection. When Baldin first told him about the 28 Durers late last year in Bremen, Salzmann clutched his head in disbelief. How could it have happened?
After returning from duty in Germany, Baldin made no secret of hisdiscoveries. He had been assigned to an architectural restoration project, and in Moscow he spoke with two of his colleagues, the scholar Igor Grabar and the head of the architecture museum, Alexei Shusev. Living and working at the Zagorsk monastery near Moscow, Baldin at first stored the drawings simply by sliding his suitcase under the bed. The door had no lock. Eventually, Shusev stored them in the locked museum vaults.
Fifteen years passed, "and as fate would have it, I was given the job of director of the museum of architecture. When I arrived for work," Baldin said, "the chief guardian there told me there were some truly valuable things in the vaults and that some sort of nut case had handed them over many years before. I had to tell him I was the nut case."
Baldin did try to make the government act on the drawings. He wrote a letter to Leonid Brezhnev. But there was no reply. Baldin understood. "Remember the times," he said. "Germany was still our Cold War enemy and the memory of all the victims of the war was still fresh in many people's minds. In fact, even now, people tell me, 'Why are you rewarding them for nothing after all they did to us?' "
In the meantime, he heard reports of how some collectors had sold back to Germany the spoils of war for hundreds of thousands, for millions, of dollars. "I just could not degrade the art or myself," he said.
Finally, he wrote to a new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, and told of what he had found and of how "two generations have already lost the chance to see these drawings." Appealing to Gorbachev's sense of "common human values," Baldin, a member of the Communist Party since the war years, signed his letter, "With hopes of soonest resolution."
For once, Gorbachev did not have to step in personally. Salzmann made contact, and 18 months ago Baldin went to Bremen. An honest man was finally able to make his gift. In return, Salzmann has talked about "making life easier" for Baldin and his wife, Yulia. But Baldin smiles. The offer is beside the point.
"I already have what I want," he said. "What else could I want?"