SUPERPOWER peace has some unexpected payoffs. The dramatic appearance of a hoard of stolen medieval German art in quiet Whitewright, Tex., this spring focused attention on one of the lesser-known ravages of World War II: the disappearance, from countries under occupation on both sides, of vast quantities of precious art. The so-called Quedlinburg treasures from an East German church, much mourned by museums and medievalists and finally tracked down in Whitewright by a sleuth for a private West German cultural foundation, had been stored in a German mine shaft for safekeeping during the war, as had the contents of many other museums and churches; an American soldier, Jack Meador, stumbled on them there and sent them home to Texas by mail. At roughly the same time, one Viktor Baldin, a young Soviet architect turned soldier in Germany near the war's end, came across an incredible cache of art by the likes of Albrecht Du rer and Vincent van Gogh in a decaying castle basement near Bremen, where his troops were trying to bivouac. Mr. Baldin took the priceless cache home in a suitcase, looked after it for 45 years and this week handed it back to the German museum authorities. In both cases, it was the fall of the Berlin Wall and the melting of the barriers between East and West Europe that made the returns possible.
Both cases, though different in some respects, were locked in deep-freeze for two generations by political factors that had as little to do with the art involved as did the war that put it at risk to begin with. Europe's division meant the Soviet government museums, to which Mr. Baldin says he gave the drawings for safekeeping, had little incentive and no practical way to open relations with the authorities of Bremen in West Germany. Meanwhile, the West Berlin-based cultural foundation that was created to track down lost and stolen artworks had no way whatsoever to pursue leads on treasures lost from Quedlinburg in East Germany.
The situation is not confined to the Germanys. The French, too, reacted to the threat of bombing by taking the art treasures out of the Louvre and elsewhere secreting them around the countryside; to the Nazis' declared intent of taking home a long list of French masterpieces for a special new imperial museum, they reacted not just by hiding art but in some cases by diverting it en route. (France, in turn, still possesses here and there Italian art masterpieces brought back from Napoleon's campaigns.) Still, the postwar period saw the recognition of considerable art losses -- losses that art historians today have trouble accounting for with any precision, since the present comprehensive cataloguing system for masterpieces and museum holdings generally came into wide use only later. So today's rediscoveries are a needle-in-a-haystack game, with objects popping up that were long assumed to be destroyed -- Du rers, Corots, van Gogh sketches -- some of staggering quality. With the past being unearthed madly on every side, we can expect more such discoveries to emerge and more trails and mysteries to demand exploration. In the large task of rebuilding Eastern Europe, it will be one of the pleasanter projects.