Russian officials were involved in convincing Sotheby's auction house to remove a Russian art collection from the market just a day before it was to go up for sale – though a tycoon willing to buy the works promised to return them to their homeland, a culture official said Tuesday.
The collection of late cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and his wife, Galina Vishnevsakaya, was to go up for auction Tuesday in London in one of the art market's most anticipated events of the year.
With 450 or so pieces, including porcelain and paintings by artists such as Ilya Repin, the collection was expected to fetch between US$25 million and US$40 million (between EUR18 million and EUR29 million) - or even more, given the current high level of interest in Russian art.
Sotheby's canceled the auction on Monday, however, after the entire collection was bought by tycoon Alisher Usmanov, who promised to bring the works back to Russia.
Federal Culture Agency chief Mikhail Shvydkoi told a news conference in Moscow on Tuesday that the agency had "presented some guarantees to Sotheby's that this transaction would be in the interest of the Russian Federation."
He did not elaborate on the guarantees, but said the Russian government itself did not try to buy the collection because it did not have sufficient funds. "The culture ministry, and I personally, began to appeal to business representatives to buy the collection in its entirety."
Usmanov offered to pay 25-30 percent more than the pre-auction estimated prices, Shvydkoi said. And though the tycoon promised to bring the works back to Russia, they would not likely be turned over to the Russian state, Shvydkoi said.
It remained unclear Tuesday when the works would be taken back to Russia or how they might be displayed to the public.
The unusual arrangement underlined the immense wealth accumulated by some Russian tycoons since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union; Usmanov on Tuesday increased his stake in the British soccer team Arsenal to 21 percent, a move apparently worth tens of millions of dollars.
It also highlighted Russians' concerns that much of the country's best art has ended up overseas, either spirited away during war or political chaos, or snapped up at low prices by foreign collectors during periods of economic distress.
Usmanov, whose fortune comes from mining, telecoms and natural gas, said Monday his main goal in purchasing the collection "is to return (it) to the country that the art belongs to - Russia."
In a similar case, metals tycoon Viktor Vekselberg in 2004 bought a collection of czarist Faberge eggs that Sotheby's had intended to put up for auction and brought them back to Russia. However, that deal took place before Sotheby's had published the auction catalog, according to auction house chairman Lord Mark Poltimore.
"This is a unique case," Politmore told the news conference. "We apologize to anyone who made the trip to London ... but I think the important point is that we achieved a wonderful result for Russia, and I think that everyone who is disappointed at not bidding in the sale realizes that this is the best outcome."
Rostropovich, who died in April at the age of 80, was considered one of the finest cellists of the 20th century, and was a staunch opponent of Soviet-era repression. He fled the Soviet Union in the early 1970s after sheltering the dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and settled in Paris with Vishnevskaya, a noted soprano.
Vishnevskaya has said that, before her husband's death, the couple decided to sell some of the collection to help support their charitable foundations.
She said Tuesday that she decided to sell it entirely because its upkeep and insurance was too costly.