Russian government played role in surprise sale of Rostropovich art

MOSCOW – The prized trove of art collected by the late cellist Mstislav Rostropovich is being returned to Russia, a top cultural official said, after a politically connected billionaire tycoon paid a premium for the collection in a surprise deal announced on the eve of its auction.

Rostropovich.jpgThe 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 has also highlighted efforts undertaken in many European capitals to retain or repatriate artwork and artifacts deemed to have special national significance.

Mstislav Rostropovich

The auction by Sotheby’s, which was to begin Sept. 18 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 between $25 million and $40 million – and perhaps much more, given the current high level of interest in Russian art.

But on the eve of the sale, the auction house canceled it because the entire collection had been bought by billionaire Alisher Usmanov, 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 an (exaggerated) sense of narcissism, this must belong to the state,” he said. “It will belong to the state – firmly and irrevocably.”

Federal Culture Agency chief Mikhail Shvydkoi told a news conference that the government agency presented Sotheby’s with guarantees that “the transaction would be in the interest of the Russian Federation.”

He did not elaborate on the guarantees, but said that the Russian government itself 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.”

Usmanov – whose fortune comes from mining, telecoms 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 he offered to pay 25-30 percent more than the pre-auction estimated prices.

The deal underlined the sometimes-dizzying wealth amassed by some Russian businessmen over the last 17 years. It also highlighted 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 other European capitals – from Athens to London to India – where governments have also used diplomatic pressure, lawsuits, public shaming and customs restrictions to keep artworks deemed to be national treasures from falling into private hands or leaving the country.

Greece has waged an intense international campaign for a return of 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, started to gather strength.

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

In instances where the artworks being sold are in their home country, governments often step in with legal measures to acquire treasures. In France, when the gavel falls on the winning bid, a representative of the French state can say the state wants the item, then buys it 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 successfully raised almost $10 million to buy the painting.

Germany, meanwhile, has long sparred with Russia over the fate of the 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.

Among Russia’s tycoons, Usmanov is not the first to have made a highly public purchase or acquisition of Russian heritage and pledge to return it to the state.

Metals tycoon Viktor Vekselberg in 2004 bought a collection of Czarist Faberge eggs – that Sotheby’s had intended to put up for 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.

Rostropovich, who died in April at the age of 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 early 1970s after sheltering the dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and 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 she decided to sell it entirely because its upkeep and insurance was too costly.