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Originally published Saturday, July 14, 2012 at 4:41 PM

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Berlin's Botticellis, Rembrandts entangled in protest over move

Berlin's Botticellis, Rembrandts and Titians are at the center of a stormy debate as plans to take them out of a museum to make way for 20th-century art have sparked online petitions and furious newspaper columns.

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BERLIN — Berlin's Botticellis, Rembrandts and Titians are at the center of a stormy debate as plans to take them out of a museum to make way for 20th-century art have sparked online petitions and furious newspaper columns.

Encompassing more than 3,000 works spanning five centuries, Berlin's collection of Old Masters is one of the world's greatest. Its treasures include works by Raphael, Bruegel, Vermeer, Duerer and Caravaggio.

Their impending move from the Potsdamer Platz Gemaeldegalerie was announced after the city acquired a private collection of 150 Surrealist paintings, sculptures and drawings from Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch.

Almost 7,000 people have signed one petition calling on Berlin to "reconsider the plan to empty the Gemaeldegalerie of Old Masters."

A June 28 column in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung said the plan threatened to "destroy one of the best museums in the world." The move is "an act of barbarism," said an opinion piece in Die Zeit, a weekly newspaper.

The petition is addressed to Hermann Parzinger, the president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation. He argues that the Old Masters will only be homeless temporarily, because Berlin plans to build a new museum in the Museum Island complex near the city's central boulevard, Unter den Linden.

"The people signing the petitions are not getting the whole picture," Parzinger said in an interview at his Berlin office.

"For us, Museum Island is the German Louvre, and the most important medium is missing — painting. The goal is to find the best possible home, not just for the art of the 20th century, but also for the Old Masters."

With an estimated value of $185 million, the Pietzsch collection includes works by Max Ernst, Rene Magritte and Joan Miro as well as American abstract expressionists such as Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock. The Pietzsches made the gift on condition that it would be displayed in one of Berlin's big museums.

Jeffrey Hamburger, a professor of German art and culture at Harvard and the initiator of the online petition, said removing the Old Masters from the Gemaeldegalerie without first providing a permanent home for them is not acceptable.

"The Gemaeldegalerie is on a par with the National Gallery in London and the Prado in Madrid," Hamburger said by telephone. "To contemplate putting a significant portion of the artworks into storage is shocking."

German Culture Minister Bernd Neumann announced last month that the government will finance the remodeling of the Gemaeldegalerie to house 20th-century art at a cost of 10 million euros.

Parzinger said the revamped Gemaeldegalerie, next to the Neue Nationalgalerie at Potsdamer Platz, will allow Berlin to show its modern-art collections in full for the first time. He said refitting can be completed by 2016.

"Our central problem is that even without the Pietzsch collection, our own possessions can't be shown in total," Parzinger said. "They can only be shown piecemeal. The Pietzsch collection complements our own wonderfully, and the acquisition of that has set the ball rolling, but it is a question of much, much more than that."

Until a new museum is built to accommodate the Old Masters, some paintings are to be displayed at the Bode Museum on Museum Island, currently home to Berlin's sculpture collection, Parzinger said. He said he's also looking at other options for displaying the rest.

Parzinger estimates that construction of the new museum will take about five years and may begin in 2018. He said no Old Masters will be removed from the Gemaeldegalerie before the German government, which will fund the construction, gives the green light for the new museum by announcing an architecture competition.

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