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1932 - 1934: Sale of Hermitage collections and transfer of works of art to museums of the Union Republics of the USSR

The 1930s formed what was perhaps the most difficult period in the history of the Hermitage Museum. Technically with the aim of raising much-needed hard currency, the Soviet Government ordered the sale of many goods abroad. There were those who saw the Hermitage as the main source for large sums of dollars, although in fact the sales of works of art which took place between 1928 and 1933 were justified neither from the political nor the economical point of view. Hermitage staff fought hard to save their treasures, often reduced to desperate measures, denying the importance of superb works, hiding some of the lesser known pieces. Yet the Hermitage suffered irreparable losses, as vast auctions were held abroad, to which 2,880 paintings were sent. Of these, 250 were seen as being major works, and 50 are still recognised as world masterpieces. Only a few unsold works came back and 48 masterpieces were lost to the Museum forever.

In addition, the Commissariat of Foreign Trade used museum collections as a source of gifts for foreign officials and businessmen and frequently sold them to "friends of the Soviet Union" at knock-down prices. Few could resist the opportunity to make such purchases and so Calouste Gulbenkian, head of the Iraq Petroleum Company, and Andrew Mellon, First Secretary of the US Treasury, Armand Hammer and others went on to make magnificent acquisitions. The scale of this action only became known to the outside world when, due to financial difficulties, Andrew Mellon was forced to offer 21 paintings acquired from the Hermitage collection to set up the National Gallery in Washington. Only in 1934 did it become possible to stop those reckless sales.

In parallel, however, there was an outflow of works on a smaller scale which continued from 1932 until well after the war, as large numbers of usually second-rate paintings and works of applied art were transferred to new museums being set up in all the different Soviet Republics.

   

 

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