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Russia & the Rostropovich Art Deal

A Russian Billionaire has paid for an entire art collection to be returned to Russia. This highlights the efforts that some countries are now going to [1] to secure the repatriation of key artefacts that they feel are important to their cultural identity.

From:
The Guardian [2]

Russia Reveals Rostropovich Art Deal
Tuesday September 18, 2007 8:31 PM
By MIKE ECKEL
Associated Press Writer

MOSCOW (AP) – The art collection of famed cellist Mstislav Rostropovich is being returned to Russia after a politically connected billionaire paid more than 25 percent above the estimated price in a surprise deal announced on the eve of its auction, a top cultural official said Tuesday.

The unusual move has again shone the spotlight on the immense wealth accumulated by some Russian tycoons since the Soviet collapse. But with the Russian government apparently playing a significant role in the deal, it also highlights efforts undertaken in many European capitals to get prized artwork or artifacts returned to their homelands.

The auction by Sotheby’s, which was to begin Tuesday in London, had been anticipated as one of the art market’s major events of the year. With some 450 pieces, including porcelain and works by renowned Russian painters such as Ilya Repin, the collection was expected to fetch $25 million to $40 million – and perhaps much more, given the current interest in Russian art.

But on the eve of the sale, the auction house canceled it because the entire collection had been bought by Alisher Usmanov, a Russian billionaire who promised to bring the works back to Russia.

“Such a collection of Russian art can’t be in the possession of one person even if he has a hypertrophied sense of narcissism. This must belong to the state,” Usmanov said in comments televised Tuesday. “It will belong to the state – firmly and irrevocably.”

Federal Culture Agency chief Mikhail Shvydkoi told reporters the government ministry gave Sotheby’s guarantees “the transaction would be in the interest of the Russian Federation.”

He did not elaborate, but said the government did not try to buy the collection because it did not have sufficient funds. “The Culture Ministry, and I personally, began to appeal to business representatives to buy the collection in its entirety,” Shvydkoi said.

Usmanov – whose fortune comes from mining, telecommunications and natural gas and who now runs a unit of state-controlled gas monopoly OAO Gazprom – has not said how much he paid. But Shvydkoi said Usamonov offered to pay 25-30 percent more than the pre-auction estimated price.

The deal underlines the sometimes dizzying wealth amassed by some Russian businessmen over the last 17 years. It also highlights Russians’ concerns that much of the country’s best art has ended up overseas, either spirited away during spasms of war and political chaos or snapped up at low prices by foreign collectors during periods of economic distress.

That’s a concern shared in many European capitals – from Athens to London to Budapest – where governments have used diplomatic pressure, lawsuits, public shaming and customs restrictions to keep artwork deemed to be national treasures from falling into private hands or leaving the country.

Greece has waged an intense international campaign for the return of its antiquities – and is finally showing some success from efforts under way since the 1980s, when pressure on the British Museum to return the Parthenon sculptures, or Elgin Marbles, began gaining strength.

In 2006, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles returned two sculptures to Greece, a marble relief from Thassos island and a black stone tombstone, dating from the 6th and 4th centuries B.C.

In instances where the artwork being sold is in its home country, governments often take legal steps to acquire treasures.

In France, when the gavel falls on the winning bid, a representative of the state can intervene and buy the item at the same price as the highest buyer.

The British government has the power to impose temporary export bans on works of art that are considered national treasures in order to give British museums a chance to raise the money to buy them.

The government imposed such a ban on the export of J.M.W. Turner’s watercolor “The Blue Rigi: Lake of Lucerne, Sunrise” after it was sold at Christie’s auction house last year. In March, the Tate gallery announced it had raised almost $10 million to buy the painting.

Germany has long sparred with Russia over the fate of so-called trophy art, thousands of valuable objects taken from Germany and some of its allies in the waning days of World War II. Germany and other countries have pressed for the return of the collections, which they argue were taken illegally.

A 2000 Russian law distinguishes between illegal trophies – taken without a military commander’s sanction – and those Moscow sees as restitution for the 27 million Soviet lives lost, 100 museums destroyed and utter ruin of entire cities during the conflict it calls the Great Patriotic War.

Usamaov is not the first Russian tycoon to make a highly public acquisition of Russian heritage and pledge to return it to the state.

Metals tycoon Viktor Vekselberg bought a collection of czarist Faberge eggs in 2004 that Sotheby’s had intended to auction and brought them back to Russia. However, that deal took place before Sotheby’s had published the auction catalog, auction house chairman Lord Mark Poltimore said.

“This is a unique case,” Poltimore told reporters.

Rostropovich, who died in April at age 80, was considered one of the finest cellists of the 20th century and was a staunch opponent of Soviet-era repression. He fled the Soviet Union in the 1970s after sheltering the dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, settling in Paris with his wife Galina Vishnevskaya, a noted soprano.

Vishnevskaya has said that before her husband’s death the couple decided to sell some of the collection to help support their charitable foundations. But she said Tuesday she decided to sell it entirely because its upkeep and insurance were too costly.

Associated Press writer Jim Heintz contributed to this report.