Russia Investigating Legality of Government Art Sales in the 1920s

Russia Investigating Legality of Government Art Sales in the 1920s
The Russian government is investigating the legality of the Soviet Union's sale of hundreds of artworks from the country's museums before World War II, Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the State Hermitage Museum, said today, according to Bloomberg.

After the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917, they confiscated and nationalized private property such as artworks and other valuables from private collections and churches. Some of these objects were destroyed and others transferred to state museums such as the Hermitage. Then, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, hundreds of these were sold to foreign collectors to raise hard currency.

About two dozen paintings sold by the Soviets provided the foundation for the U.S. National Gallery of Art, according to the museum's Web site. The works were donated to the American people in 1937 by Secretary of the Treasury Andrew W. Mellon, who had bought them from the Soviets. Among them is Raphael's The Alba Madonna.

Piotrovsky, who is also deputy chairman of the Presidential Council for Art and Culture in Russia and chairman of the Union of Museums, said that “the Hermitage has no plans to demand the return of artworks from anyone. This is not possible today. However, we plan to resist attempts to make us return items, whether it is Germany or the Russian Orthodox Church, which have claims against Russian museums. Museum items, wherever they are, should remain in their museum collections.”

He was referring to ongoing efforts by the German government to have returned thousands of objects and artworks that Soviet troops confiscated from German museums and churches as spoils of war during World War II. The Russian Orthodox Church has also pressured the state to return objects that were once in churches and that may be deemed holy.