After years of hearing about the deterioration of cultural institutions in the former Soviet Union, I have to admit it's a special pleasure to read about the latest cultural news from Russia. With the significant improvement of its economy, a new class of wealthy Russian collectors has emerged as a significant force in the country's cultural life. They support various museums including the Hermitage, a mind-boggingly art-rich, but cash-poor museum. New Russian millionaires and billionaires, not unlike their American cousins a century ago, have discovered the pleasure of art collecting which also comes handy in social climbing. Only recently a famous Faberg- collection belonging to Malcolm Forbes, and valued at about $100 million, was bought by a Russian industrialist with the intention of loaning it to one of the museums in St. Petersburg or Moscow.
A month ago, the New York Times reported about Russian collector, Vladimir Nekrassov, who displays his collection of Soviet era paintings in a huge cosmetic emporium in the center of Moscow, one of 14 such stores he owns in the city. Next to "monumental paintings of Lenin, Stalin and the Battle of Stalingrad," are shelves with expensive "perfume, lipstick, tampons and Antonio Banderas' Diavolo cologne." Cold War be dammed! Taking a clue from Charles Saatchi and his high-profile private museum in London, Mr. Nekrassov is preparing to open his own museum to show his collection of more than 7000 paintings.
Last year at Sotheby's Russian auction in London, more than $20 million worth of art was acquired by new Russian collectors. Last week Sotheby's held an extremely successful auction of Russian art in New York. More than 80 percent of the art works were sold, including two paintings which went for over a million dollars, significantly exceeding their high estimate. And now, from the "believe it or not" headlines, the mighty Hermitage is planning to hang a large painting by Rubens, acquired in Europe and given to the museum on extended loan by a Russian real estate developer, who also owns an upscale Moscow strip club, called "Up and Down."
Last summer The Art Newspaper reported that "new Russians" have appeared out of nowhere. "In 2000, Forbes magazine did not have a single Russian in its list of the riches people in the world: now it counts 17 Russian billionaires - only America, Germany and Japan have more."
But let's not forget Los Angeles museums with their recent, smart art acquisitions. The Getty added to its collection an exceptional portrait by Titian, previously displayed in the Louvre, where it was on loan from a private collector. Even more surprising is to see Houdon's life-size plaster portrait of Voltaire, recently acquired by LACMA. Another version of the same portrait, made from marble, was commissioned by Russian Empress Catherine the Great for her Hermitage collection. Ironically it arrived in St. Petersburg just as news of the French Revolution reached the Empress. Trying to prevent the threatening spread of new ideas, the Empress ordered the portrait to be locked away in the basement of her Palace, where it remained for the better part of the 19th Century. It's safe to assume that LACMA's version of the same portrait will never disappear from its place of honor in the museum's permanent collection.
J. Paul Getty Museum
1200 Getty Center Drive
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
5905 Wilshire Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90036