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On examining the watercolours of the New Hermitage rooms, an attentive viewer might notice that a number of paintings, sculptures and works of applied art, including some celebrated masterpieces, no longer adorn the museum today. These works - the pride of the museum collection in the 19th century - became caught up in the historical upheavals that affected Russia in the first half of the 20th century and departed from the museum forever in the 1920s or 1930s.

When the October Revolution broke out in 1917, the Hermitage's treasures were in Moscow, where they had been evacuated in the early autumn of that watershed year. At the same time in Petrograd the Hermitage began to receive through the Collegium of Museum Affairs nationalized valuables from private collections that were taken in by the museum staff on a temporary basis and not registered in the catalogues. (Subsequently they were callously sold by the state at auctions abroad.) Only by the end of 1920 did it prove possible to complete the return of items evacuated to Moscow and at that point all the museum rooms and halls were reopened.

The 1920s were marked by protracted negotiations, at times full of dramatic clashes, with the Museum of Fine Arts (now the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts) in Moscow about transferring a large number of paintings to that institution. On 28 January 1927, the final agreement was signed, giving Moscow about 500 paintings from the reserve stocks. Soon after, however, there was a further transfer of around 70 splendid works taken from the display. In some instances celebrated pairs of paintings were separated, for example, Veronese's Diana and Minerva and Poussin's Battle between the Israelites and the Amalekites and The Battle between the Israelites and the Amorites (in each case the second work is now in Moscow). The same period saw the intensive selection of paintings for transfer to provincial art museums.

On 1 October 1928 the USSR embarked on the implementation of the first Five-Year Plan - a utopian idea of a great leap forward that caught up all strata of Soviet society. It was intended that within half a decade the industrialization of the whole country would be advanced apace and its agricultural backwardness overcome. According to a decision of the People's Commissariat (Ministry) of Foreign Trade, Antiquariat, an organization set up in 1925 for the export and import of antiques and artistic valuables, became an internal source for the receipt of hard currency for the country. Between 1929 and 1932 Antiquariat was actively engaged in the sale at foreign auctions of works of art from the museum fund and Soviet museums. The Hermitage archives contain correspondence on this subject: government orders, letters and telegrams.

Besides the auctioning off of museum items, negotiations were also taking place with the oil magnate and noted collector Galouste Gulbenkian. In April 1929, 24 items of "French silver and gold" from the Hermitage were sold to him as well as The Annunciation, a 15th-century painting by Dirck Bouts. Gulbenkian's second purchase, in February 1930, included 15 silver items and a celebrated portrait of Helena Fourment by Rubens. The third one took place in June 1930 and brought him Houdon's statue of Diana, two Rembrandt's paintings (Pallas Athena and Portrait of Titus), Watteau's Mezzetin in Love, Terborch's Music Lesson and Lancret's Bathers. In October 1930 he obtained one more Rembrandt: Portrait of an Old Man. All these acquisitions together cost the collector 325,000 pounds sterling.

The USSR's second counterpart in the secret sale of works of art from the Hermitage was Andrew Mellon, US Treasury Secretary. As a result of nine deals struck between April 1930 and April 1931, 21 masterpieces from the museum's Picture Gallery moved to his private collection for a total of 6,654,033 dollars. They included The Annunciation by Jan van Eyck, The Adoration of the Magi by Botticelli, a Crucifixion triptych by Perugino, St George and the Dragon and the Alba Madonna by Raphael, Venus with a Mirror by Titian, Portrait of Isabella Brant, Susanna Fourment and Her Daughter and Portrait of Lord Philip Wharton by Van Dyck, A Polish Nobleman, Girl with a Broom and Portrait of a Lady with a Carnation by Rembrandt, and Portrait of a Young Man by Frans Hals.

The final result of this tragic period for the Hermitage was the irreplaceable loss of more than 50 masterpieces. Besides the major purchases by Gulbenkian and Mellon, the paintings have made their way by various means into museums around the world, including the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne (Cleopatra's Feast by Tiepolo), the Philadephia Museum of Art (The Triumph of Neptune and Amphitrite by Poussin), the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (Peter Denying Christ by Rembrandt, Portrait of Sir Thomas Gresham and Portrait of Anne Fernely, Wife of Sir Thomas Gresham by Antonio Moro (Anthonis Mor van Dashorst), and the Metropolitan Museum in New York (The Crucifixion and The Last Judgement - two panels of a triptych by Jan van Eyck).

 


Giulio Romano Lady at her Toilet
Detail of the watercolour by Edward Hau
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Paolo Veronese's Minerva
Detail of the watercolour by Edward Hau

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Rubens's Portrait of Helene Fourment
Detail of the watercolour by Edward Hau

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Rembrandt's Portrait of an Old Man
Detail of the watercolour by Edward Hau

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Rembrandt's Portrait of a Polish Aristocrat
Detail of the watercolour by Edward Hau

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Van Dyck's Portrait of Isabella Brant
Detail of the watercolour by Edward Hau

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Raphael's Alba Madonna
Detail of the watercolour by Edward Hau

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Two panels of a triptych by Van Eyck: Golgotha and The Last Judgement
Detail of the watercolour by Edward Hau

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Antonis Mor van Dashorst's Portrait of Sir Thomas and Lady Gresham
Detail of the watercolour by Edward Hau

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Paolo Veronese's Discovery of Moses
Detail of the watercolour by Edward Hau

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