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Russia buys back (some of) its heritage

Some of Russia’s new millionaires are attempting to buy back heritage to have it within the country once more – whether this is for their own benefit, or solely for the greater good of the country remains to be seen however.

Washington Post [1]

Old Russia’s Art Retrieved With New Russian Wealth
By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 7, 2004; Page C01

A fabled collection of Faberge art objects took American mogul Malcolm S. Forbes three decades to amass. In a sign of the changing world order, the cache was snapped up this week in a single stroke by one of Russia’s new tycoons.

The secretly negotiated purchase not only preempted a bejeweled auction scheduled for April 20 in New York. It also threatened to open the Pandora’s box of the art world.

Sotheby’s announced Wednesday that Victor Vekselberg, a Ukrainian-born oil and aluminum magnate, had acquired the Forbes collection, which was known especially for nine gold-and-jewel-encrusted imperial Easter eggs made in the St. Petersburg workshop of Peter Carl Faberge.

The amount paid by Vekselberg, who made Forbes magazine’s list of billionaires last year at the age of 45, has not been disclosed. Auctioneers had estimated that the collection of more than 180 finely worked pieces would bring $90 million to $130 million. Sotheby’s President Bill Ruprecht described the eggs as “among the most beautiful works of art ever created.”

In a statement released by Sotheby’s, Vekselberg called the collection “perhaps the most significant example of our cultural heritage outside Russia. The religious, spiritual and emotional content captured by these Faberge eggs touches upon the soul of the Russian people. Upon learning that the Forbes collection was going to be auctioned, I knew immediately that this was a once in a lifetime chance to give back to my country one of its most revered treasures.”

Vekselberg was said to be traveling and unavailable for comment, but his Washington representative, Bob Burkett of the Carmen Group, left no doubt about his client’s goal: to repatriate Russian art.

“We hope that the magic of this transaction will serve as a magnet for things that were once the property of the people of Russia to be returned to Russia,” he said.

Vekselberg’s acquisition of an entire collection is in the tradition of Catherine the Great, who bought equally grandly at European auctions. Technically the purchase was made by a nonprofit foundation, which Vekselberg set up almost overnight. Its purpose was not merely to buy the Faberge but also to acquire “other pieces of art and culture outside Russia that are important enough to bring back,” Burkett said. The entity, which has been tentatively named Svyaz Vremyon (a reference to connecting the past and future), was not yet registered, he said.

Whether the focus of the foundation will be limited to the works of Russian artists held in private art collections or will extend to the repatriation of art in the hallowed halls of museums is not clear.

Burkett said, “We don’t know the answer to that, but he is very serious about this being the beginning, not the end.”

Returning art to its place of origin, or last known collection, is a hot-button issue engaging academics and governments in delicate debate over the fate of mankind’s treasures. Most prominently, Greece is angling for the so-called Elgin Marbles, which were made to grace the Parthenon but are now held by the British Museum in London. Egypt has declared the Rosetta Stone, at the same institution, is indispensable to its identity, but is not clamoring for the return of the Luxor obelisk, around which traffic flows at the Place de la Concorde in Paris.

No conquering power absconded with Russia’s cultural heritage. Instead, the Bolshevik Revolution drove aristocrats out of Russia with their collections. The struggling Soviet government then sold off art to foreigners to raise hard currency. Substantial holdings amassed by the czars were dispersed and museum treasures deaccessioned. Collections at Washington’s National Gallery of Art and Hillwood Museum were built from large purchases during this tumultuous period.

National Gallery spokeswoman Deborah Ziska dismissed the issue of repatriation, saying, “The gallery’s paintings were legally purchased by Andrew Mellon from the Russian government.”

At Hillwood, which owns the largest collection of Russian decorative arts outside Russia, Executive Director Frederick Fisher quickly signaled that he considers his institution’s collections “carefully purchased,” and therefore secure. He acknowledged the controversy over the Parthenon marbles but noted that “most museums have taken the position that once you give back, your halls will be empty. Every museum has the heritage of other nations.”

Hillwood owns two of 50 eggs that were commissioned from the House of Faberge between 1885 and 1916. All were gifts from Romanov czars to their mothers and wives. Of the 42 eggs that are accounted for, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond owns five, and the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, like Hillwood, owns two. The Kremlin Museum has 10.

The highlight of the Forbes collection was the Coronation Egg, made in 1897 and given by Czar Nicholas II to his wife, Alexandra. With a latticed gold enamel surface studded with diamonds and a tiny gold coach inside a velvet-lined compartment, it had been expected to bring $18 million to $24 million. The first gift egg, a startlingly minimalist design from 1885, consists of a white enamel egg, lined in gold, that opens to reveal a gold chick. It carried an estimate of $3 million to $4 million.

Irina V. Popova, cultural attache at the Russian Embassy, noted that the timing of the purchase allows Vekselberg to benefit from a new law, passed just weeks ago, eliminating hefty import duties on art. As for repatriation, she said, “If we can pay, we pay. If not, we can’t do anything. It’s now a capitalist world, and we are living in it in Russia.”

Hours before the news broke in the United States, the Russian press gave big play to Vekselberg’s plan not only to bring the objects back but to exhibit them in Moscow and later in a traveling show across Russia. “There’s no question that the public will have access,” Burkett said. “As to where the collection will ultimately wind up, the decision has not been made.”

At Hillwood, the news was greeted with mixed emotions. Fisher said his team had been salivating over the prospect of acquiring a few objects to expand the collection started by Hillwood’s late founder, Marjorie Merriweather Post, who bought her Faberge at auction. Curators had written off the eggs, given the hefty estimates, but not a pink enamel cherub, which matches the larger of Hillwood’s eggs, and a choice folkloric figure made of semiprecious stones.

Instead of inspecting treasures to acquire, Hillwood’s Russian expert, Karen Kettering, spent the afternoon reading Russian news on the Web. She confirmed the goal of Vekselberg’s foundation, translating a mission statement as “searching and obtaining and returning to the Motherland historically significant Russian artworks located abroad.”

Fisher was unmoved. “I can sympathize with the phenomenon of another country losing so much of its heritage,” he said. “But it’s not like Russia is devoid of its heritage.”

According to Forbes magazine, Vekselberg acquired the bulk of his fortune in a late 1990s takeover of Tyumen Oil Co., Russia’s third-largest oil and gas company, which has since become TNK-BP. He is also chairman of the board of Siberian-Urals Aluminum Co. He is not known as an art collector. But Russian press accounts indicate that Piotr Aven, a respected collector of Russian art, was working with him. Burkett hinted that the Faberge eggs might be on display in Russia for Easter, after a brief exhibition in New York.

Malcolm S. Forbes, who also collected paintings, motorcycles and hot-air balloons, acquired his multimillion-dollar fortune through a publishing empire. He died in 1990 at 70. The decision to sell the Faberge collection came from Forbes’s sons, Malcolm and Steve. A family spokeswoman suggested that a record $9.6 million price paid in 2002 for a diamond-studded Faberge egg may have been a catalyst. In a statement, the family called the sale “an astonishingly romantic ending to one of the great stories in art history.”

At Sotheby’s, Vice Chairman David Redden declined to reveal what Sotheby’s made for brokering the deal. But he called the outcome “very, very happy” for everyone. He was disheartened only not to have been able to complete the auction catalogue.

“We’d photographed the eggs more intensively than they had been photographed before,” Redden said. “Faberge doesn’t break down the closer you get. It just gets better and better.”