View from the Hermitage. Collector's Prize
As I mentioned before, museums have complicated relations with private
Our case concerns a sale rather than a donation. I do not feel entirely comfortable discussing the case concerning this collection at the moment since everything as it is happening too fast. Recently someone died and immediately following his death discussions started of how to split up his collection.
I would like to say initially that Mstislav Leopoldovich was a good friend to museums and the State Hermitage Museum in particular. He visited us and we in turn would visit him. There is a house in St. Petersburg where he brought a lot of things. For example, he brought a portrait of Peter the Great, which happened to be the subject of many discussions.
Mstislav Leopoldovich often consulted with his colleagues from the State Hermitage Museum before auctions. If there were miniature paintings he used to call on the now late Galina Nikolaevna Komelova to ask her advice. He gathered a very good collection of miniature paintings. We had conflicts at auctions too but these are inevitable. Rostropovich's collection has a famous porcelain snuffbox that Catherine II presented to Count Orlov. It is amazingly beautiful. One day we had a call from Christie - they had a snuffbox specially for the State Hermitage Museum. The main thing was that they expected no rivals so it was worth trying to buy it.
And we tried - we found donors and determined the money limit. The snuffbox, however, exceeded the limit of 50,000 dollars that we could afford. It turned out that Rostropovich acquired it for a somewhat higher price. That was a lesson for all of us how to communicate with auction houses - because they told Rostropovich that there would be no rivals too. If we had known about each others intentions, one of us could have bought the item for a much smaller price. I contacted Mstislav Leopoldovich after the auction to say that we would like to have the snuffbox, maybe just for a while, and show it in the State Hermitage Museum. He said he had hunted for it too long. It first appeared on the market as he just came to Europe having no money to buy it at that time. This is the collector's prize. So it stayed with him. Now the snuffbox is worth a minimum of 400,000 dollars.
I have many warm memories of Mstislav Leopoldovich. He and Galina Pavlovna are models of venturous collectors.
Many private collections are sold off because their heirs have different interests. That's their fate. A collection is a good business before it gets into a museum. I mentioned the price of the snuffbox. The current price of other items is much higher than the one paid originally. A collection is a good investment in terms of the art market.
Again, to split-up a collection seems very unattractive to me. Especially as Rostropovich's collection is a special one. It is very private; it was used. It was not intended for a museum. We discussed that with Mstislav Leopoldovich. He had no intention of making his house in St. Petersburg a collector's museum.
It is important that the collection will now come to Russia. And it is strange to see so many people attacking the man who bought it. He did a very great thing but he had to defend himself for having done it. In fact, he did not only return the collection to Russia but he saved it from being divided into pieces among dozens of dealers. Otherwise, it would be acquired by some dealers in London, then sold to others… Everything would go separately into multiple private collections.
Alisher Usmanov saved the whole collection and thus to a large extent saved Rostropovich's memory. As far as we know, he made other fine gestures in various fields. I have recently written an introduction to the exhibition of modern Islamic art which will take place in the Oriental Museum and the State Hermitage Museum. Usmanov helped to organise it.
I am certain that Rostropovich's collection is worth showing in many places. It should be noted, however, that showing private collections in museums requires some courage from both the collector's and the museum's point of view. Exhibiting an item in a museum increases its price but it can turn out that a painting is a "no sale" that is that the collection cannot be compared with the museum's one. Many collectors run risks, of course. We have exhibited Rubens from Logvinenko's collection. El Greco's painting, which was acquired by a Russian collector in the USA, is on the way - it will be shown as soon as the restoration is over. Among private collections, we showed works by Modigliani, Picasso…
The Rostropovich Collection is regarded as the best in the world. It is indeed remarkable and has a beautiful name. It is important, however, to remember those domestic collectors who gathered their collections in Russia. We, in the State Hermitage Museum, value extremely highly those gifts from Varshavsky, Dushin, Shuster, which were included in our collections. Peterhof was enriched with the collections of Ezrakh and Perelman. The collection of the Rzhevksy Brothers in the Russian Museum is another one to remember.
Our collectors have a lot of merits. One of them is that they collected new artworks. They saved avant-garde at the time it could have been lost or gone abroad. Collectors supported artists in the 1960s-1970s, thus saving the spirit of modern art. I would also to mention Bezobrazov, Gross and Takhtajan. They did not merely collect pieces of art but had a special creative atmosphere around them... We had a plan to make a series of soirees in memory of collectors in the State Hermitage Museum. There were a lot of people who gathered old classical art, performing the museum's role.
Once again, my strong desire is that, while thinking about the Rostropovich Collection, we also remember others. The State Hermitage Museum arranges exhibitions in their memory. We had an exhibition in memory of Basilewsky. He was a Russian diplomat, resigned prematurely, lived in Paris and gathered a collection of medieval art there. This was bought by Alexander III to become the basis for the Hermitage's department of medieval art. Other collections that flowed into the Hermitage's collections are remembered by their collectors' names - Kushelev-Bezborodko, Semenov-Tyan-Shansky.
In fact, Semenov-Tyan-Shansky gathered his collection specially for the Hermitage. He bequeathed the collection to the museum on the condition that he would be paid a reasonable compensation to provide sustenance to his family. All items remained in the collector's house until the end of his life.
The State Hermitage Museum relies a lot on collectors. We are going to create a museum of 20th and 21st century art in the General Staff Building. Our collections allow us to show art from Europe and some of the largest Asian countries. The situation with Russian art is worse. There is a division of labour principle - the best Russian things are stored in the Russian museum. We hope that collectors will help us to show Russian art of the 19th to the early 20th centuries without abandoning their ownership.
We also had discussions with major collectors and bankers to create a kind of society for returning things that left the State Hermitage Museum during sales. Today, you can find things in the market, which were sold under Nicholas I and under the Soviet government. Prices are high but negotiable in some cases. This is the field for those who are willing to do good.
This year, we received two remarkable monumental vases bequeathed to us from America. The vases were made by the Imperial Porcelain Factory. This is the kind of art which Mstislav Leopoldovich liked to collect.
As far as the fate of Rostropovich's collection is concerned, the main thing here is to make it available to the public. The collection is not simply private; it is Rostropovich's one in all respects. It should be kept as a whole, maybe in a separate museum. I believe that the best way would be to place it in the Konstantin Palace. The Grand Duke's repaired palace now holds high-level meetings. It does not have its own collection. So the new situation will help to re-unite the name of Rostropovich with the Russian state.