The Russian government has set up a commission to review the legality of the Soviet Union’s sale of artworks from the country’s museums before World War II, the director of the State Hermitage Museum said today.
Of the hundreds of paintings sold from the Hermitage Museum in the late 1920s and early 1930s, about 20 of them eventually went to help create the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.
“President Medvedev has entrusted a commission to raise and study the question to what extent the Soviet government’s sale of artworks from museum collections was legal according to existing laws at that time,” Mikhail Piotrovsky said during his annual state-of-the-museum report in St. Petersburg.
After the Bolsheviks seized power in November 1917 they nationalized private property, including artworks from aristocratic collections and churches. Among these were masterpieces of West European art, Faberge objects, jewelry, silver, and icons.
Some confiscated artworks were destroyed, while much was transferred to state museums, such as the Hermitage. The Soviet government sold artworks to foreign collectors to raise hard currency.
These included Raphael’s “The Alba Madonna” (1511), which American collector and Secretary of the Treasury Andrew W. Mellon bought from the Soviets in 1931 for $1,166. The painting was previously in the Hermitage.
Mellon bought almost two dozen paintings from the Hermitage collection. In 1937 Mellon donated these and his entire art collection to the American people. This was the foundation of the National Gallery of Art, according to the museum’s Web site.
In autumn 2004, “The Alba Madonna” was exhibited in the Hermitage for the first time since its sale by the Soviets. At that time, Piotrovsky said the legality of the painting’s sale was not in question. This guarantee was important for the exhibition to go ahead.
How exactly the Kremlin plans to pursue this issue is unclear. Kremlin spokesman Alexei Pavlov said in a telephone interview he didn’t have information. Piotrovsky, however, said he is against restitution.
“The Hermitage has no plans to demand the return of artworks from anyone,” said Piotrovsky. “This is not possible today. However, we plan to resist attempts to make us return items, whether it is Germany or the Russian Orthodox Church, which have claims against Russian museums. Museum items, wherever they are, should remain in their museum collections.”
Piotrovsky was referring to German claims asking Russia to return artworks that Soviet troops looted during and after World War II. The Hermitage has hundreds of so-called “trophy” artworks taken from German collections.
The Russian Orthodox Church has also pressed the country’s museums over the past 15 years to return items that were once in churches, such as icons that believers revere as holy.
Piotrovsky is one of Russia’s most influential culture figures. He is deputy chairman of the Presidential Council for Art and Culture, and chairman of the Union of Museums. He has been Hermitage director since 1992.
(John Varoli writes for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the reporter on this story: John Varoli in St. Petersburg at firstname.lastname@example.org.