The New Adventures of the Family
Yulia Kantor, counsellor of the State Hermitage Director and holder of a Ph.D. in History, describes the possible fate of a treasure found in the villa of the Naryshkin family at the request of “MN.”
The information that a unique treasure that was found during the restoration of the former villa of the Naryshkin family would wind up in the Konstantin Palace could almost be said to have surprised journalists, art historians and museum workers alike as much as the discovery itself. According to data from the historian from Staraya Square, the initiative to place the treasure in the Petersburg residence of the head of state originated with Vladimir Kozhin, the chief clerk of the presidential administration.
“The artistic value of this treasure has yet to be determined, and that has to be done by professionals, yet it is already obvious that its history is of some interest, and perhaps even greater interest. The documents that were found in the hidden area along with the silver cutlery and medals must be studied thoroughly. Strictly speaking, what we need to talk about is a complete study of this unique find,” said the Director of the State Hermitage Museum, Mikhail Piotrovsky. “Only when this find has been studied by specialists, after it has been restored, which will take some time, it will be possible to decide where it will be stored on a permanent basis.” The Hermitage currently has the best workshop for restoring items made from precious metals not only in the country, but in all of Europe; it is fitted with the most modern equipment. Furthermore, a few years ago the Hermitage’s specialists successfully studied and restored a silver treasure belonging to the owner of the Likhachova’s Saint Petersburg Wallpaper Factory, which was found in the Soviet days in a house that belonged to her before the revolution. Thanks to this work, an expanded collection of family silver was made accessible to the public, and, just as importantly, its history became known; the variety of items, their manufacturers’ marks, dates of production and engravings enabled the Hermitage specialists to recreate a very interesting family biography of one of the richest merchant dynasties.
The results of the initial inspection indicate that the Naryshkin treasure is even more interesting for researchers; the family silver of well-born nobles, collected over several generations, made to special orders by the best Russian firms, discovered along with documents and medals promises to contain many discoveries. It is still not clear whether or not all of the hidden treasure belonged to the Naryshkin family. The family crest can be found on only one service, which, according to the initial examination by the Hermitage’s specialists, was made in the 1860’s or 70’s, in the neorussian style, and is truly unique; no Russian museum has such a complete set. The remaining silver items are “anonymous.” Their origin has yet to be established. By the way, the surprising intactness of the newly discovered items, the lack of patina and corrosion, the excellent condition of the gilding work gave rise to the notion that this treasure was not all hidden at the same time. One version suggests that it might have been added to after the revolution, and even during the post-Soviet period. That aspect of this detective story might be made clear by the cloth that the pieces were wrapped in; experts can determine when it was manufactured.
The Hermitage is by no means insisting that the treasure remains in the museum after it has been restored and studied to determine its historical and artistic significance. It might also wind up in the Russian Museum, or in Pavlovsk, or even remain in the Naryshkin family villa itself. The issue is that that building, which is the property of the city, will probably pass to the Intarsia Company, which is now restoring it. The interior of the villa has been moderately well preserved, after the revolution it was home to the Znaniye Society, the Leningrad organization for managing art and other governmental cultural and educational institutions at various times. The future owner is prepared to discuss the opening of a museum dedicated to the history of the house and its owners in the building, which is classified as architectural landmark. The idea is supported both by the municipal Committee on State Control, Use and Protection of Historical and Cultural Landmarks, “since this find is inextricably connected by history to the landmark itself. The Committee on State Control, Use and Protection of Historical and Cultural Landmarks also supported the proposal to transfer the “find of the century” to the Hermitage for restoration, study and temporary exhibition. (By the way, a new figure has appeared in the story of this treasure; the 84-year Natalie Naryshkina, who currently lives in France, has expressed great interest in the family treasure).
The unexpected and binding intervention of the presidential administration in the story of this treasure looks alarming. The treasure was supposed to be transferred to the Konstantin Palace on Friday, i.e. twenty four hours after a technical and statistical description of the silver items was made, without expert analysis, an investigation into their origins, or restoration. This has not happened yet, due to objects from the museum community. In Mikhail Piotrvosky’s opinion, wherever the treasure is finally sent, it must be exhibited as a single whole and not separated. Certain information suggests that the Presidential Administration is only interested in the silver, and not the other pieces of the historical treasure. The fate of the Naryshkin treasure without museum status would be a precarious one; someone who wished to might use the silver cutlery for its original purpose.