Selling Russia's Treasures: The Soviet Trade in Nationalized Art, 1917–1938

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9780789211545: Selling Russia's Treasures: The Soviet Trade in Nationalized Art, 1917–1938

This abundantly illustrated oversize volume presents the definitive account of the sale of Russia's cultural patrimony by the Soviet government in the interwar years

Selling Russia's Treasures documents one of the great cultural dramas of the twentieth century: the sale, by a cash-hungry Soviet government, of the artistic treasures accumulated by the Russian aristocracy over the centuries and nationalized after the October 1917 revolution. An astonishing variety of objects, from icons and illuminated manuscripts to Fabergé eggs and Old Master paintings, entered the collections of wealthy Westerners like Andrew Mellon and Armand Hammer in the 1920s and 30s.

Written by the leading experts in the field and long regarded as the definitive book on the subject, the original Russian edition of Selling Russia's Treasures is sought after scholars and laymen alike. Now, for the first time, it is made available in English, in a revised and expanded edition that includes a new chapter on the secret files of the Hermitage, previously considered lost, as well as new research on the sale of religious art, and of twentieth-century French masterworks from the Museum of New Western Art.

Numerous color plates reunite long-dispersed works in a virtual museum that illustrates the powerful blow inflicted on Russia's cultural heritage by these secretive sales, and rare photographs and archival documents help bring this buried history to light.

Distributed for the M.T. Abraham Center for the Visual Arts Foundation

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About the Author:

Nicolas V. Iljine, a consultant to museums and cultural institutions, has organized a number of important exhibitions, including RUSSIA!, the landmark survey of Russian art that opened at New York’s Guggenheim Museum in 2005.

Natalya Semyonova, an art historian, is the author of several books on art collecting in Russia.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

INTRODUCTION

More than 10 years have passed since the first publication of Selling Russia’s Treasures, the story of the crude bartering of Russia’s art. No study or scholarly conference since then on the subject of the Stalin sales” has failed to cite it. The book itself has become a bibliographic rarity.

As in the foreword to the first edition, we wish to salute those who pioneered the study of this long forbidden topic. First of all, we salute Prof. Robert C. Williams, the American scholar whose 1980 book, Russian Art and American Money, 1900 1940, ended the silence that for more than 50 years shrouded this tragic page of Russian history. Then, in the 1990s, with the stamp of secrecy gone and the Soviet archives open, the first articles and books on the subject by researchers in Russia appeared. Under the headline, Sale,” journalist Aleksander Mosiakin weighed in on the pages of the then fantastically widely read weekly Ogonek. In Krasnye konkistadory (Red Conquistadors), historians Olga Vasileva and Pavel Knyshevskii detailed the devastating losses that the sales” had brought to the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1993 Moscow historian Iurii Zhukov published Operatsiia Ermitazh (Operation Hermitage), which compiled all the then known relevant archival materials. In the revised second edition of the book, published in 2005, Zhukov slightly revised the title to Stalin: Operation Hermitage, and acknowledged, at least in part, the economic motivation felt by the Soviet leadership in ordering the sales: the cost of developing Soviet industry.

Meanwhile, work continued in the archives, and additional documents came to light. Early in 1999, with work on the first edition of this book nearing completion, Petersburg archivist Natalya Serapina published, in the journal Neva, material from the supposedly lost secret files of the Hermitage. Her book, published in 2001, The Hermitage That We Lost, Documents 1920 1930, was based on the new material. In 2006 came publication by the Hermitage of Gosudarstvennyi Ermitazh. Muzeinye rasprodazhi. 1928 1929 (The State Hermitage. Museum Sales. 1928 1929), a fundamental work that caps the line of archival research. The editor, Elena Solomakha, is part of the team that prepared the present volume.

Nor have European and American scholars lost interest in the Stalin sales.” An international conference on the topic was held in Vienna in 2000, yielding the volume Verkaufte Kulture: Die sowjetischen Kunst- und antiquitatenexporte, 1919 1938. Edited by Austrian scholar Waltraud Bayer, one of the most active researchers in the field, the book included contributions from Elena Solomakha, Rifat Gafifullin and Natalya Semyonova, all of whom are represented here as well. They also were part of the group that produced Treasures into Tractors: The Selling of Russia’s Cultural Treasure, published in Washington, D.C., in 2009 under the editorship of Wendy R. Salmond and the late Anne Odom, formerly the chief curator of the Hillwood Museum and all-too-untimely deceased.

The unslackening interest in the Stalin sales” confirmed us in our long-discussed hope of publishing Stealing Russia’s Cultural Treasures in English to make it more widely accessible. At the same time, the newly discovered materials that have become part of the scholarly discourse on the subject in the past decade made necessary a substantial reworking of our book. New essays written especially for this volume have been added.

Over the past few centuries many a country has lost important pieces of its cultural heritage which have mostly turned up in museum or private collections, but it was a unique phenomenon that the Soviet Union officially sold off thousands of valuable artworks, icons and jewelry. As far as we know it was the only state to have cynically discarded such treasures, which the aristocracy and enlightened philanthropists had lovingly collected in pre-revolutionary times. It is little consolation that some of these masterpieces have found their way back into Western museums and are thus accessible to the public, as is the case, for example, with 31 major works from the Hermitage which are now in the Washington National Gallery.

Elena Solomakha, deputy chief of the manuscript division of the State Hermitage, has written a chapter on the The Destruction of the Hermitage.” Elena Emelianova, senior scholarly associate for research in rare books (Museum of Books) of the Russian State Library, has reworked her chapter, Books for Sale,” with substantial assistance from Edward Kasinec, curator emeritus of the Slavic and East European Collections of the New York Public Library and Research Scholar at the Harriman Institute at Columbia University. For the new edition, Yury Pyatnitsky, senior curator of the Byzantine Collection of the State Hermitage, has given us a fundamental study of the sale of icons as part of the Stalin sales” as well as a detailed analysis of the Western markets in Russian icons (which, because of space limitations, is presented in shortened form). Alexey Petukhov, senior curator of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, has produced a chapter detailing the tragic story of the decimation of the great and unique State Museum of Modern Western Art.

Can it really be true that we lost more than 70 masterpieces of the new French art of Cezanne, Renoir, Gauguin, Matisse and Picasso acquired by Moscow collectors, principally Sergie Shchukin and Ivan Morozov? The fact is unbelievable, but the documents speak for themselves. The leaders of the Soviet Union were little concerned about the citizens that they sent in the hundreds of thousands to prison camps. They were no less unfeeling in their treatment of the invaluable paintings and icons that they sold by the thousands. They even sold people, it turns out: For a brief time in 1930 1931, relatives could buy the freedom of family members who had failed to emigrate in time and remained in Soviet captivity. The less proletarian the captive’s origin, the higher the price.

If the millions who died in the years of repression could be returned to life, one might not so grieve the lost canvases. Alas, the dead cannot be brought back. While this volume is more comprehensive and thorough than the first one, it is written with the widest possible audience in mind. Our objective is to make what is known generally only to scholars available to the widest circle of readers.

Once again we wish to express our gratitude to those who worked with us in the late 1990s: to Viktor Nikitin, who devoted decades to the painstaking collection of information on the history of Gokhran (the State Depository of Valuables of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic) and the sale of the Almaznyi (Diamond) Collection of the USSR; to art historian Elena Smirnova; to historian Alexey Anikin; to Rifat Gafifullin, senior fellow at the State Museum-Preserve of Pavlovsk, and to Natalya Sheredega, head of the Department of Old Russian Art at the State Tretiakov Gallery. We are grateful, too, to art historian Andrei Sarabianov, one of the editors of the first edition of this volume; to Andrew Bromfield, of London, who 10 years ago prepared the English translation (only now seeing the light of day) of Selling Russia’s Treasures, and to Antonina W. Bouis and Jean-Claude Bouis, of New York, who read the manuscript. We also thank Peter L. Schaffer, President of the US Hermitage Museum foundation for his continuous support.

We are enormously grateful for the support of the M.T. Abraham Center for Visual Arts Foundation and its president, Amir G. Kabiri, which made this edition possible.

Our politics have not changed. We still do not consider it necessary to blame and judge. New facts are more eloquent than accusations when it comes to the events of the first third of the 20th century that led Russia to the edge of cultural catastrophe.

Natalya Semyonova, Nicholas V. Iljine

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