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Publications | Selling Russia's Treasures

Selling Russia's Treasures


The M.T Abraham Center for the Visual Arts invests maximum efforts to promote, publicize and facilitate investigation related to its permanent collection. Also, the Center supports debates on the artistic phenomena that shape the plastic arts from the 19th to the 21st centuries by sponsoring different editorial possibilities such as: exhibition catalogs that are distributed worldwide, and catalogs that accompany each of our traveling exhibitions around the globe.


The story of the sale of Russian national art treasures confiscated from the tsarist royal family, the church, private individuals and museums in the USSR in 1918 – 1937.


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 our 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 Aleksandr Mosiakin weighed in the pages of the then fantastically widely read weekly Ogonek. In Krasnye konkistadory (Red Conquistadors), historians Ol’ga Vasil’eva 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 Kultur: Die sowjetischen Kunst- und antiquitätenexporte, 1919–1938.

Edited by Austrian scholar Val’taud Bayer, one of the most active researchers in the field, the book included contributions from Elena Solomakha, Rifat Gafifullin and Natalya Semenova, 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 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.


Elena Solomakha, deputy chief of the manuscript division of the State Hermitage, has written a chapter on the “The Destruction of the Hermitage.” Elena Emel’ianova, 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, Yurii Piatnitsky, 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). Aleksei 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 New 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 Sergei 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 “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. But historical memory can, and that is the task that we set before ourselves in this book. 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 Aleksei Anikin; to Rifat Gafifullin, senior fellow at the State Museum-Preserve of Pavlovsk, and to Natalia Sheredega, head of the Department of Old Russian Art at the State Tret’iakov Gallery. We are grateful, too, to art historian Andrei Sarab’ianov, 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 Stealing Russia’s Treasures, and to Nina Buis, of New York, our proofreader.


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.


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Taken on April 3, 2012