Which countries today house the treasures of tsarist Russia

Hillwood Museum; National Gallery of Art; Queen Elizabeth II collection
After the October Revolution of 1917, the Soviet government wanted to lift the economy whilst erasing the last vestiges of the old regime. As a result, tons of unique jewelry, icons and works of art previously held by the tsarist family left the country, often for a song.

In the early days, the revolution brought little but chaos and lawlessness. Ordinary folk began to plunder and destroy royal palaces, noble mansions and churches. Fortunately, the vandalism was stopped by the new authorities, and church, tsarist and aristocratic property was nationalized. The Bolsheviks found themselves in possession of untold riches (the tsarist diamonds alone equaled 51,479.38 carats), some of which they soon decided to sell off.

Employees of the State Administration for Precious Metals and Stones (Gokhran) with jewels of the Russian crown. Moscow. 1923

"In America, it is known by the fancy word ‘deaccession’ and is considered a normal procedure. In Russia, it is seen as a sell-off, and those who allowed it both before and after the Revolution are cursed,” writes Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the Hermitage Museum, in a new reprint of the book Selling Russia's Treasures (by Natalia Semenova, Nikolas Ilyin/SLOVO publications, 2021), adding that Russia’s deaccession is considered a national tragedy. Where can you see the treasures of the Romanovs and the Russian nobility today?

The U.S.

In 1933-37, the wife of the American ambassador to the USSR, Marjorie Post, bought a huge number of tsarist items from a consignment store in Moscow. In 1968, she moved this entire extensive collection of antiques to her Hillwood estate near Washington, DC. Today, it houses one of the largest museums of Russian antiquity in the U.S.

The collection includes, inter alia, a precious bowl from 1791 and a pair of vases from the Imperial Porcelain Factory dated 1836.

Imperial Porcelain vases

In 1966, at a Sotheby’s auction, Marjorie Post bought the 1884 imperial crown of the Romanovs, made of silver, diamonds and velvet. Its journey to Hillwood was circuitous: in 1926, the treasure was sold to the antiquarian Norman Weiss, and the following year, at a Christie’s auction in London, it was bought by another antiquarian for the Wartski Gallery.

The imperial crown of the Romanovs

The chromolithographic 'Portrait of Their Imperial Majesties'from the book Description of the Sacred Crowning of Their Imperial Majesties Emperor Alexander II and Empress Maria Alexandrovna of All Russia (1856), which had been kept in the library of Alexander II, was sold to the New York Public Library.

Portrait of Their Imperial Majesties

Fabergé’s precious Easter eggs were picked up by various buyers. Ten were sold to the Hammer Brothers Gallery in New York, including the revolving miniature egg below. In 1945, it was bought by Lillian Thomas Pratt, the owner of one of the largest collections of Fabergé eggs. She donated her treasures to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, where they are now housed.

The Revolving Miniatures Faberge egg

Many paintings from the Hermitage collection were bought by US statesman and industrialist Andrew Mellon. They later formed the core of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, of which he was the founder and main investor. As such, the Washington gallery now housesThe Adoration of the Magi by Sandro Botticelli (early 1480s).

Sandro Botticelli. The Adoration of the Magi

The Alba Madonna by Raphael (circa 1510) is also kept there. The Bolsheviks sold it for the then record sum of over $1.7 million.

Raphael. Alba Madonna

They nationalized the vast private collections of Russian merchants and patrons who had bought up Western art, including many Impressionist and avant-garde works. From the Morozov collection, for instance, the art collector and businessman Stephen Clark purchased Vincent Van Gogh’s The Night Café through the Knoedler & Co Gallery, and later donated it to the Yale University Art Gallery. 

Vincent Van Gogh. The Night Café

The UK

The 'Mosaic' and 'Basket of Wildflowers' Fabergé Easter eggs were sold to the Windsors in the 1930s, since when, alongside other items of tsarist jewelry, they have been in the collection of Queen Elizabeth II.

Faberge eggs: The 'Mosaic' (left) and the 'Basket of Wildflowers'

This hairpin, or aigrette, in the form of a flowering branch, from the 1760s–70s, even the Soviet authorities called “one of the finest works of the 18th century.” It was sold at Christie’s on March 16, 1927. Both the aigrette and two 18th-century emerald-encrusted pins are now in the collection of S.J. Phillips in London.

Jewel pins

The British Library houses the 4th-century Codex Sinaiticus, donated by the Greek Monastery of St. Catherine to Tsar Alexander II in 1859.

A page from the Codex Sinaiticus

France

A great many paintings from the Hermitage collection ended up in the Louvre. They were transferred to the Paris museum by French collectors from the Society of Friends of the Louvre, who bought up Russian treasures from the Bolsheviks. This is how Rembrandt’s Landscape with a Castle, for example, bought by art dealer Georges Wildenstein, came to be there.

Rembrandt. Landscape with a Castle

The Society of Friends of the Louvre bought for the museum apauldron(armour shoulder-piece) with a 'Resurrection of Christ' scene. Made in Lorraine, France, around 1170-80, before the revolution it was kept in the sacristy of the Assumption Cathedral in Vladimir.

'Resurrection of Christ' armour shoulder-piece

Germany

When the Bolsheviks began to target religion, they confiscated all church utensils made of precious metals, melted down bells and sold off icons. As such, in the late 1920s, the 15th-century Virgin with Child icon made its way to Brussels in the collection of a married couple by the name of O’Meara, before being bought by the Russian emigre Alexander Popov, who took it with him to Paris.

Icons of The Virgin with Child (left) and The Saint Emperor Constantine and His Mother Helen, Saint Agatha icon is also there.

In 1966, the antique was transferred to the Icon Museum in the German city of Recklinghausen. The Saint Emperor Constantine and His Mother Helen, Saint Agatha icon is also there.

Sweden

The collection of the National Museum in Stockholm holds icons depicting the Apostle Peter and the unknown Great Martyr of the late 13th-early 14th centuries. In the 1930s, it was bought by the Swedish envoy to Moscow, Wilhelm Assarson.

Icon of the Apostle Peter and the unknown Great Martyr

Many icons were donated to the National Museum in Stockholm by banker Olof Aschberg. He sympathized with the Bolsheviks from the start, helping them set up the Russian Commercial Bank. In the late 1920s, with the approval and mediation of the Soviet government, he removed around 250 (!) icons from Russia. Among them were the 17th-century Mother of God and John the Baptist.

Mother of God and John the Baptist

Norway

The 16th-century Introduction to the Temple of the Blessed Virgin Mary icon was bought by Norwegian commercial adviser Richard Zeiner-Henriksen. From his collection, in 1957, it was moved to the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design in Oslo.

The Introduction to the Temple of the Blessed Virgin Mary icon

Netherlands

Many paintings by the Dutch masters in the Hermitage collection “returned home,” purchased by Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. Among them were several works by Rembrandt, including The Denial of Saint Peter and Titus as a Monk from the 1660s.

Rembrandt. The Denial of Saint Peter

Switzerland

In 1928–31, the State Public Library (now the Russian State Library) disposed of a unique Gutenberg Bible from the early 1450s. Today, it is housed in the Martin Bodmer Foundation in Switzerland.

A Guttenberg Bible at the Martin Bodmer Foundation

Portugal

A large collection of tsarist treasures is kept in the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon. In 1929-30, the oil industrialist of Armenian origin whose name graces the museum bought a large number of Hermitage canvases, including Portrait of Helena Fourment by Rubens, Pallas Athene and Portrait of an Old Man by Rembrandt, The Annunciation by Dieric Bouts, Cutting Down the Trees at Versailles (Le Carpet Vert) by Hubert Robert, and many others.

Hubert Robert. Cutting Down the Trees at Versailles

The collection also includes the two-meter marble sculpture Diana by Jean-Antoine Houdon.

Jean-Antoine Houdon. Diana

After long negotiations with the Soviet government, Gulbenkian also bought a collection of Louis XVI-era dinnerware sets, made by French artisans for the Russian imperial court.

A dinnerware set

Australia

In 1933, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s masterpiece The Banquet of Cleopatra (1743-44) sailed across the ocean to Melbourne. The painting, bought by Catherine the Great for the Hermitage, was acquired by the foundation of Australian art patron Alfred Felton for the National Gallery of Victoria, where it remains to this day.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. The Banquet of Cleopatra

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