Stalin’s Sales. The masterpieces that left the Hermitage and more
The Hermitage hall
The Hermitage: shall we start?
The first one who came up with the "brilliant" idea of selling painting masterpieces from museum abroad was the very leader of the proletariat, Vladimir Lenin. By 1918, thanks to the efforts of Russian collectors, as well as the imperial family, Russia possessed numerous collections of painting masterpieces. In addition to Catherine II, who began to collect the Hermitage collection, Nicholas I, Alexander I and other members of the imperial family also collected paintings for the museum, spending huge amounts of money for this. So the Hermitage and other museums in the country had something to please the West! Back in the 1920s, Lenin wrote that objects of art must be sold legally, and that this must be done "extremely quickly". This extremely "practical" idea was later boosted by Comrade Stalin.
The only person in the government who understood the blasphemy of what was happening was People’s Commissar A. V. Lunacharsky, but no one heard him.
The first tipster
The main informant of the West, who provided reliable information about the treasures in Soviet Russia, was the Englishman Martin Conway, who arrived in the USSR in 1924 and was greeted very warmly. In his book, he noted how the "amiable" Russians took him to the Trinity-Sergius Lavra, famous palaces, and, of course, to the Hermitage, where they left him "all alone" for the whole day, to take a closer look. An enterprising Englishman made the necessary advertising for the cultural heritage of the Soviet republic, and the first swallows (or rather, vultures) soon reached the USSR: buyers, like moths attracted by the alluring fire of an incredible offer of the museum treasures sale.
It’s all about the oil!
The first "purchaser" of the Hermitage paintings was Calouste Gulbenkian, an Iraqi oil magnate. The Portrait of Titus by Rembrandt, Bathers by Lancret moved into his collection. But even he, despite the obvious benefit for himself, as a cultured person, realized the absurdity of what was happening. After all, no country knew such precedents! "Trade whatever you want, but not what is on display in the museum. The sale of a national treasure gives basis to a very serious diagnosis," he wrote in a letter to G. L. Pyatakov. "Such deals cause enormous damage to the prestige of the country and its culture" — alas, the irreparable events continued.
Iraqi oil magnate Calouste Gulbenkian, the first buyer of the Hermitage paintings.
“Client” No. 2
The second most famous buyer of the museum paintings was the American financial "king" and minister Andrew Mellon. Later, in his memoirs, he would recall the servility of Vneshtorg employees taking him to museums, assuring him that "they sell anything from any museum, and he is free to buy any painting or thing at his discretion". Here Mellon really bought painting masterpieces for a song. In April 1931, Mellon bought 21 priceless masterpieces for only $ 6,654,053. Already four years later, these paintings were appreciated eight times more expensive. And after the war, they cost just incredible money — one hundred million dollars. Mellon could have become a major millionaire simply by reselling the canvases bought in the Union.
Andrew Mellon, the financial "king" of America
The Hermitage paintings: sold epochs
Using the example of the Hermitage, let us summarize: what kind of pictures did the country get rid of during the Stalin’s sales. From the museum’s funds, 2880 paintings were put up for sale, of which 48 masterpieces left the country forever. These were canvases of Jan van Eyck, Rembrandt, Raphael, Titian. The collection of Flemish and Dutch paintings and other collections donated to the museum by the country’s most famous collectors in the past were partially sold out. For example, Van Eyck’s Annunciation and Raphael’s Madonna Alba were sold to Mellon. At the auctions, Head of an Old Man in a Cap by Rembrandt, Portrait of an Old Man by van Cleve, Saint Jerome and Madonna and Child by Titian, paintings by Cantarini, Berne, Canaletto, Moroni were sold. The Assumption of the Virgin Mary by Rubens, The Last Supper by Van Dyck, The Massacre of the Innocents by Giorgione and many more paintings — the former pride of the country and its cultural heritage — have forever disappeared from the Hermitage.
Who took over the baton?
Half of the paintings so easily given away by the Soviet Union are now in the national museums of America. So, in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, you can now admire the Birth of Venus by Nicolas Poussin. Initially, the painting was donated to the Hermitage by Catherine II, and the Museum does not hide the fact that it was bought in the USSR — you can even read about it in the comments under the painting. Three Hermitage paintings, The Crucifixion and The Last Judgment by Jan Van Eyck and The Lute Player by A. Watteau, took their place of honour in the New York Metropolitan. 51 (!) objects of art from the Hermitage, including paintings, migrated to the Gulbenkian collection. Then he sold them to museums and private collections, and most of the paintings can be seen in the Lisbon Museum of the Gulbenkian Foundation now.
So, when does a study remain a mere drill, and when can we call it an artwork in its own right, full of life and having artistic value? Read more