RUSSIAN ART AND AMERICAN MONEY: 1900-1940 by Robert C. Williams


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In 1971 Williams (History, Washington U.) saw a Russian painting at a St. Louis brewery, and his curiosity led him to research the shady dealings behind that acquisition--which then led him to other shady and semi-shady U.S. purchases of Russian or Russian-owned art before and after the Revolution. He found two bizarre, mildly engaging tales connected with modern Russian painters: how the contents of a 1904 St. Louis exposition (including that brewery picture) changed hands and governments for eight frazzled years; and the wild career of paintermystic Nicholas Roerich--N.Y.'s favorite guru, possible spy, and creator of the Roerich Peace Pact to protect cultural monuments in wartime (there's a marvelous photo of FDR apparently trying not to laugh while signing it). But the most suggestive Roerich coup was his N.Y. sale of European paintings from Leningrad in 1930--suggestive because it coincides with Williams' more resonant material here: the non-unknown but never-so-complete story of how ""for one terrible decade the Soviet government. . . bartered away some of its most valuable treasure"" in order to fund Five-Year plans, get rid of bourgeois culture, and make friends in the U.S. Rembrandts, Raphaels, and van Dycks from the Hermitage went to Treasury Sec. Mellon, the confiict-of-interest king; Romanov debris went to entrepreneur Armand Hammer, who sold it to chic matrons at Lord & Taylor; and U.S. Ambassador Davies (whose Mission to Moscow became a cornerstone of 1940s dÉtente) was allowed to buy when no one else could. No stunning revelations, and more detail than necessary (not enough, though, about the reactions of Russian exiles whose confiscated art was sold), but intriguing.

Pub Date: March 26th, 1980
Publisher: Harvard Univ. Press