Hermitage Buys Tsarist Portrait Collection

Portrait of Empress Alexandra Feodorovna and her daughter, Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna, 1829.
Artist: Piotr Sokolov (1787-1848)

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Russia’s State Hermitage Museum last night bought 92 watercolor portraits valued at about 3 million pounds ($4.8 million) from the Paris-based Popoff Collection after the works failed to sell at auction earlier this year.

The St. Petersburg museum, one of the largest in the world, didn’t name the price it paid for the art that it acquired directly from Maurice Baruch, head of Galerie Popoff, one of the biggest Russian art collections in the West.

In October, Christie’s International in London offered about 100 watercolor portraits of the Imperial family and Russian aristocracy by artists such as Karl Briullov, Orest Kiprensky, Petr Sokolov and Vladimir Hau. Only five of these lots sold. The paintings were valued by the London-based auction house at the time as worth between 2.5 million pounds and 3.5 million pounds.

“The 19th-century Russian watercolor portraits from the Popoff Collection are some of the most spectacular of their kind in the world,” Viktor Faibisovich, the Hermitage’s head of new acquisitions, said in a telephone interview.

Faibisovich said the artworks arrived at the Hermitage yesterday, and that plans are being made to display them at the museum at the end of this month.

The top work is Hau’s “Portrait of Natalia Pushhkina,” (1844), wife to Russian poet Alexander Pushkin. That work didn’t sell at Christie’s on a low estimate of 120,000 pounds.

More than half of the 580 lots failed to sell across the entire collection as Christie’s raised 5.5 million pounds on a low estimate of 9.7 million pounds.

The top presale lot was a 1778 Berlin-made porcelain dinner set that was a gift from the Prussian ruler, Frederick II, to Russia’s heir-to-the-throne, Grand Duke Paul. It failed to sell on a low estimate of 200,000 pounds.

The Russian government, with assistance from private sponsors, paid for the Popoff purchase, said Faibisovich. The museum staff wouldn’t comment on whether it will buy the porcelain in the collection.

Alexandre Popoff, a Paris dealer who opened his gallery in 1920, benefited from refugees arriving in France from the Soviet Union. Some were aristocrats who had to sell their valuables. Popoff’s buyers later included the Duke and Duchess of Windsor; Mstislav Rostropovich, the Russian cellist; actress Greta Garbo and composer Leonard Bernstein.

Bloomberg
10 December, 2009