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The Soviet sale of Hermitage paintings in 1930 and 1931 resulted in the departure of some of the most valuable paintings from the collection of the State Hermitage Museummarker in Leningradmarker to western museums. Several of the paintings had been in the Hermitage Collection since its creation by Empress Catherine the Great. About two hundred and fifty paintings were sold, including fifty masterpieces by Van Eyck, Titian, Rembrandt, Rubens, Raphael, and other important artists. Andrew Mellon donated the twenty-one paintings he purchased from the Hermitage to the United States Government in 1937. They became the nucleus of the National Gallery of Artmarker in Washington DC.


In the late 1920s, the Soviet government urgently needed foreign currency to finance the rapid industrialization of Russia ordered in the first Five Year Plan. The government had already sold off collections of jewelry, furniture and icons seized from the Russian nobility, wealthy classes, and the church.

In February 1928, the State Hermitage Museummarker in Leningradmarker, along with the Russian Museummarker, was ordered to make a list of art works worth at least two million rubles, for export. A special agency called 'Antiquariat' was created under the Narkompros (the People's Commisariat of Enlightenment) and opened an office in Leningrad to oversee the sale. The Hermitage was instructed to sell 250 paintings for at least 5000 roubles each, plus engravings and a number of golden treasures from ancient Scythia.

The sale was secret, but word was quietly spread to selected western art dealers and collectors that the paintings were on the market.

The first foreign buyer to purchase Hermitage paintings was Calouste Gulbenkian, the founder of the Iraq Petroleum Company, who began buying paintings in early 1930, trading them for oil with the Russians. The organizers of the sale were dissatisfied with the amounts they received from Gulbenkian, so they looked for other buyers.

Francis Matthieson, a young German art dealer, was asked by the Sovietmarker Government to compile a list of the hundred paintings in Russian collections, which should never be sold under any circumstances. He was most surprised to be shown several of these paintings not long after in Parismarker by Gulbenkian. Gulbenkian wanted him to act as his agent on further purchases, but Matthieson instead formed a consortium with Colnaghi's of London and Knoedler & Co of New York, which in 1930 and 1931 bought twenty-one paintings from the Russians, all of which were bought by Andrew Mellon, who had been offered first refusal.

Andrew Mellon, an American banker, Secretary of the Treasury for Presidents Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover, art collector and, at the time, American Ambassador to Great Britain, had conceived the idea of founding a National Gallery for the United States modelled after the National Gallerymarker in London. He heard about the Hermitage sale through the art gallery he usually used for his purchases, the Knoedler Gallery of New York, Paris and London.
Mellon's syndicate bought groups of important paintings from the Hermitage, including Van Eyck's Annunciation and Raphael's The Alba Madonna. The latter painting was sold for $1,166,400, the largest sum ever paid for a single painting until that time.

By the end of 1931, Mellon had acquired twenty-one paintings for a total price of $6,654,000. He donated these paintings in 1937 to the United States, along with the money to build a museum to house them. These paintings were the heart of the National Gallery's collection.

The sale was secret until November 4, 1933, when it was reported in the New York Times that several Hermitage paintings had been purchased by the Metropolitan Museummarker in New York.

The sale came to an end in 1934, possibly as a result of a letter to Stalin from the deputy director of the Hermitage, Joseph Orbeli, protesting the sale of Russia's treasures. The director of the Hermitage, Boris Legran, who had been brought to the museum to conduct the sale, was dismissed in 1934 and replaced by Orbeli.

In the 1990s, following the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Parliament of the Russian Federationmarker passed a new law prohibiting the sale of Russian art treasures to foreign countries.

For many years the National Gallery was reluctant to loan the paintings it had bought from the Hermitage back to that Museum, for fear that the Russian government would keep the paintings in Russia. That policy changed after 1990, when Mikhail Piotrovsky became director of the Hermitage. A number of the National Gallery paintings have been on loan to the Hermitage, including Venus with a Mirror by Titian, which was lent to the Hermitage at the time of the first visit of the President George W. Bush to St Petersburgmarker in 2002.


February 1928

Hermitage ordered to prepare list of paintings for sale.

January 1930

  • Antoine Watteau, The Lute Player (sold to Calouste Gulbenkian.)
  • Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of Titus, (sold to Calouste Gulbenkian)
  • Anthony van Dyck, Susanna Fourment and her daughter (sold to Mellon syndicate)
  • Anthony Van Dyck, Portrait of Philip, Lord Wharton (sold to Mellon syndicate)

May 1930

  • Nicolas Lancret, The Beautiful Bathers, (sold to Calouste Gulbenkian, then resold to George Wildenstein. Now in a private collection.)

June 1930

July 1930

  • Anthony van Dyck, Portrait of Isabella Brandt (sold to Mellon syndicate for $223,000.)

October 1930

November 1930

  • Adriaen Hanneman, Portrait of Henry, Duke of Gloucester (sold to Mellon syndicate)
  • Veronese, The Finding of Moses (sold to Mellon syndicate)

January, 1931

  • Rembrandt van Rijn, Joseph Accused by the Wife of Potiphar (sold to Mellon syndicate)

February 1931

  • Frans Hals, Portrait of a Young Man (Mellon syndicate).
  • Rembrandt van Rijn, Woman with a Pink (Mellon syndicate).
  • Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of a Polish Nobleman, (Mellon syndicate).
  • Raphael, Saint George and the Dragon. (Mellon Syndicate)
  • Velázquez. [[Portrait of Innocent X|
Portrait of Pope Innocent X]] (Mellon Syndicate; the New York version)
  • Sandro Botticelli, The Adoration of the Magi, (Mellon Syndicate.)
  • Frans Hals, Portrait of an Officer. (Mellon Syndicate.)
  • Rembrandt van Rijn, Women with a Rose, (Mellon Syndicate)
  • Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, House of Cards, (Mellon Syndicate.)

April 1931

  • Rembrandt van Rijn, A Turk. (Mellon Syndicate.)
  • Anthony Van Dyck, Portrait of a Flemish lady. (Mellon Syndicate.)
  • Pietro Perugino, The Crucifixion with the Virgin Mary, Saint John, St. Jerome and St. Mary Magdalene. (Mellon Syndicate).
  • Raphael, The Alba Madonna. (sold to Mellon Syndicate for $1,166,400)
  • Titian, Venus with a Mirror. (Mellon Syndicate.)

February 1932

See also


  • Prodanniy Sokrovishta Russiiy (lit. The Sale of Russia's Treasures) by Nicholas Iljin and Natalia Semenova (project directors). Russkiy Avantgard publishers, Moscow, 2000.
  • Kopper, Philip. America's National Gallery of Art - A Gift to the Nation. Abrams Publishers, New York, 1991.
  • Serapina, N. Ermitazh kotoriy miy poteryali (lit. The Hermitage which we lost.) Neva, Number 3, 1999.
  • Walker, John, The National Gallery, Washington, Thames & Hudson, London, 1964.

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