ART MARKET / Treasure Trove: During the years of communist rule a small group of Russian enthusiasts risked their lives to build impressive art collections. Now the collapse of the Soviet system has allowed them to go public - and reveal their treasures

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The Independent Culture
ELEONORA Afonine has just made her first visit to Israel; the trip cost her a Faberge silver tray and two Faberge bowls. Art treasures are now worth serious money in St Petersburg, where she lives; she sold the tray for dollars 1,000 (pounds 700) and the bowls for dollars 750 each. But she was not impressed by her visit - Israel was so uncultured compared with St Petersburg.

Parting with three pieces of Faberge has made little impact on the vast collection of 19th-century paintings and Russian works of art Mrs Afonine and her husband Vladimir have acquired over the past 25 years. The couple are typical of the small, but very sophisticated, group of connoisseurs who secretly collected art in Russia during the communist years. It was a dangerous hobby, since communist orthodoxy regarded property as theft; but that, in turn, meant that art works cost next to nothing. More important than money were sufficient knowledge and an eye for quality.

The Russian private collections are mostly large and incongruously stuffed into tiny, workers' apartments. Hitherto they have been virtually unknown. Now, at last, Gorbachev's perestroika and Yeltsin's market reforms have given the collectors the courage to admit publicly to their fascination with art and an extraordinary phenomenon has been revealed.

'After we married, we started saving up for a car,' Mr Afonine, a retired engineer, explained. 'Every time we had nearly saved enough, the government hiked the price. In the end we spat at the idea with which we had been obsessed. We found ouselves in an antique shop and bought a painting; it seemed very good quality. We enjoyed it and bought a second one. After the third we were collectors.'

The walls of their small flat are densely covered with paintings; the furniture is mainly Russian mahogany of the late-18th and early-19th century; every available surface supports ormolu-mounted clocks and vases.

Mrs Afonine spread a cloth over a fine mahogany table and served us snacks made from pickled red peppers and ham, washed down with Earl Grey tea. Above the Empire sofa on which her husband and the interpreter were sitting hung the portrait of a pretty young woman who was clearly a contemporary of Queen Victoria. The Hermitage Museum had just pronounced it a lost painting by Franz Xavier Winterhalter, a portraitist who was the darling of every European court, including Britain's, in the mid-19th century.

The apartment block where they live is late-19th-century. The smell of cats' piss hangs heavy on the air of the broken stairway that leads up to their door. The landing is overlooked by the Afonines' lavatory window, the panes of which are painted brown, apart from a small hole at the bottom right. This is not to allow the light in; it is a peephole for them to see who is ringing the door bell, a necessary precaution for Russian art collectors. In the past they trembled at the threat to life and liberty of a visit by the KGB. Today, gangsters are the danger; last year two collectors in St Petersburg were murdered during burglaries.

How the Russian collections were formed remains mysterious. The collectors prefer to talk in vague generalisations. There were state-run antique shops in the Soviet years and small junk shops which occasionally sold worthwhile antiques, but these seem to have been a minor source, used mainly by beginners. The collectors were a close-knit group who knew each other well and visited regularly; they often exchanged treasures or bartered. Once they had gained a reputation for an interest in antiques, objects would be brought to them for sale.

There were middle men - not so much antique dealers as 'resellers'. Collectors who wanted to sell seem to have been able to put the word about; the 'resellers' would find them a buyer. There also appears to have been an underground network which was capable of smuggling art works out of the country.

Today legitimate antique dealers and auctioneers are beginning to ply their trade. It was one of this new breed, a bright young auctioneer called Mikhail Kamensky, who gave me a horrifying insight into the dangers the collectors still face. A small man with a shock of black hair who normally wears blue jeans, Kamensky runs Moscow's new auction house, Alfa Art, from a miniscule office in the grandiose House of Artists. When I met him in a St Petersburg hotel, he had just completed a valuation for the heirs of a 80-year-old collector, murdered along with his housekeeper by burglars who had broken in to his apartment.

The thieves got away with about 60 paintings, hitherto untraced and probably untraceable. Kamensky would not tell me the name of the murdered collector, but said he was disappointed by what remained of his collection; the owner had had a passion for finding initials on paintings that proved his pictures were Rembrandts or Rubenses. Mostly it was fantasy. Only 50 of his 300 paintings had proved worth selling and some 200-300 pieces of his 1,200 Oriental works of art. Any Western auctioneer would consider such a success rate spectacular.

The collection had never been photographed so, although the relatives claim to remember the pictures well, it is unlikely they will ever be given the chance to recognise them. Innocent Western buyers are probably already hanging the pictures in their parlours - to judge by the fate of a great Moscow collection of Old Masters which was stolen two years ago.

Victor Magids, a politically well-connected leader of the Moscow collectors' group, was beaten up, bound and gagged by robbers who overpowered him as he opened the door of his flat. They proceeded to spend an hour selecting which pictures to take, he told me. A group of the paintings turned up at Sotheby's a few months later - Magids spotted them in the catalogue and Sotheby's has helped to trace the thieves. More of the paintings were found by the German police in Stuttgart and he has been told that a further batch was consigned to the Hotel Drouot in Paris. Luckily, Magids had his entire collection photographed a few days before the break-in; he was preparing for an exhibition of the collection in Holland - it is very strong on Dutch 17th-century paintings.

One of the crucial figures in the 'outing' of Russian collectors - their transformation from clandestine hunters, outside the law, into respected public figures - appears to have been Raisa Gorbachev. In 1986 the Russian Cultural Foundation was established under her patronage; its primary aim was to buy back Russian heritage items from the West. At first it was planned that she should be its chairman, but such a role was deemed improper for the President's wife and an old St Petersburg academician called Dmitry Likhachev was appointed. Her involvement had, however, an immense political significance; culture became a back entrance to the network of power and influence which ran the country.

Two of the first organisations spawned by the Cultural Foundation, and encouraged by Raisa, were the Renaissance Trust and the Club of Art Collectors, both established in 1987. The first is essentially a collector back-up organisation run by Victor Magids. Registered as a charity, it helps existing collectors by lobbying banks and private corporations to buy art - in the hope of establishing an internal market. 'Our aim is to prevent smuggling by attracting the attention of banks,' Magids told me, thus candidly revealing the way the Russian market functions. Although the export of any artefact made before 1945 is illegal, collectors with savoir-faire send their art abroad for sale when they need money. 'It is not that they smuggle themselves,' Magids said. 'It is the middle men to whom they sell their art who know how to take it out of the country.' The Trust is also trying to raise funds to establish a Moscow Museum of Contemporary Art.

The inspiration for both the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Collectors' Club came from a young art critic and collector called Valeri Dudakov (most of the major collectors are over 60, but he is only 47). Dudakov is a smart operator who began his career by designing record sleeves. He is deputy director of the incipient Museum of Contemporary Art - which has a lot of art, but no building - and deputy chairman of the Collectors' Club. He likes to be the power behind the throne, rather than occupying the throne himself.

An exhibition that Dudakov organised in England in 1989 provides a good example of how politics and culture became interlinked through Gorbachev's wife. It was called '100 Years of Russian Art, 1889-1989, from Private Collections in the USSR' and was shown at the Barbican Art Gallery and the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford. The costs were shouldered by a Western sponsor, the Oppenheimer Charitable Trust. The Oppenheimers are, of course, the principal shareholders of De Beers, the worldwide diamond monopoly. It is of crucial importance to De Beers that Russia, the only other major diamond producer besides South Africa should continue to collaborate on fixing prices. In the context of the exhibition, De Beers made a donation of dollars 1m (pounds 700,000) to Raisa's Cultural Foundation to help with the purchase of Russian treasures abroad, according to Dudakov. The selection of purchases has to be approved by both parties.

The generosity of Russia's private collectors towards the state which hounded them for so long is more astonishing. In October the Pushkin Museum in Moscow plans to open a sister institution called the Museum of Private Collections. Renovation of the building next to the old Pushkin Museum, where it will be housed, is almost complete. The idea was first mooted in 1985 by Mr I S Zilbersteyn, editor of a literary review and collector extraordinary; at his death in 1987 he bequeathed the museum a collection of 2,500 items, primarily 19th and 20th-century graphics and Old Masters.

Some 12 other collectors have been inspired by his example and donated their collections to the new museum. They include Varvara Rodchenko, daughter of the avant-garde artist Alexander Rodchenko (1891-1956). Her donation of 500 of her father's paintings, graphics and photographs - a Rodchenko set an auction price record for any photograph when it sold for pounds 115,500 at Christies last year - are expected to fill four galleries of the museum.

Varvara Rodchenko, whose mother was the artist Varvara Stepanova, still lives in the studio off Kirov Street that her father was allocated by the state in 1922 - with her husband, her son, his wife and their family. The space is packed with books, artist's equipment - both Varvara and her son are designers - and works by Rodchenko and Stepanova. The Rodchenkos appear quite uninterested by the new opportunities to make money out of their connections. Their driving passion is to ensure that Rodchenko's genius is remembered by future generations - hence the museum gift.

The secret collections of the work of 20th-century Russian artists who, like Rodchenko, were the leading lights of the avant-garde in the 1920s, only to be suppressed and turned into non-persons in the 1930s, are among the most fascinating that have been recently revealed. Geometric abstraction was pioneered in Russia; in 1919 Malevich painted his White Square on a White Backround and Rodchenko countered with his Black on Black. Despite the artists' enthusiastic support for the Revolution, Stalin banned the production and exhibition of this highly intellectual art, imposing Social Realism as the only acceptable genre.

'We started collecting in 1953 (the year of Stalin's death),' Mrs Choudnovsky, the widow of a great avant-garde collector, told me. 'Before that it was impossible. When the door bell rang we trembled in case it was the KGB; we had friends who were arrested for nothing.' Her husband, a man of great courage, was a professor of physics at the Leningrad polytechnic and died in 1985. He was criticised in the local newspaper for having refused to suggest that Russian physicists were more important than Einstein, whose achievement Stalin sought to minimise. His modern cast of mind was attracted to modern paintings.

The couple bought from the impoverished families of avant-garde artists, from Vladimir Tatlin's widow, for example; they swapped with other collectors and, once their interest became known, paintings were brought to them. 'Many people wanted to sell and very few were brave enough to buy - so they were rather cheap,' Mrs Choudnovsky said.

By the 1970s, the Choudnovskys' collection had become modestly famous amongst underground connoisseurs and, inspired by Western interest in the Russian avant-garde, some of Brezhnev's inner circle had taken to collecting. This gave the KGB a new interest in the family; first they came to the door politely asking to buy pictures and naming prices fabulously beyond current market levels. To protect themselves, the Choudnovskys sold one Larionov but refused to accept more than a modest profit on their purchase price - for fear that they would later be accused of profiteering.

The next approach was more violent. Their son Felix, then in his 30s, opened the front door to go out, was clubbed and dragged back into the flat. 'I fought back, which was stupid of me - it was one against three,' he said. His assailants were hired Armenian thugs; in the melee he was stabbed and managed to wound one of the Armenians - 'there was plenty of blood as witness to the robbery.'

After they had tied Felix up, the robbers had trouble identifying the paintings they were supposed to take. They asked him to point out the Chagalls and he misdirected them. But they got away with works by Malevich, Larionov, Altmann and others - 23 paintings in all. Professor Choudnovsky was convinced they were destined for the collection of the Minister of the Interior and he persuaded the top brass of the Academy of Sciences to take up his cause; eventually 11 of the paintings were returned and, later, the Armenians were caught and put on trial. The rest of the paintings are still missing - though an important Malevich is said to have been sighted in Switzerland.

Old Mrs Choudnovsky, her son Felix and his young family still live together in a small St Petersburg apartment, crammed from floor to ceiling with avant-garde art. Pictures apart, wall space is only allowed to the absolute necessities of life, the television, the refrigerator, the bookshelves; it is not a showy place, but has a comfortable, lived-in feel.

The only avant-garde collector who has become famous outside Russia is George Costakis, a Muscovite of Greek origin. He too was robbed, in 1974 - he claims the KGB was responsible. In 1978 he pulled off an extraordinary coup; in return for donating two-thirds of his collection to the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, he was allowed to leave for the West, taking the remaining third of the collection with him. A touring exhibition of what he had brought out gave Western connoisseurs their first comprehensive picture of the art that burgeoned in Russia in the 1920s.

Costakis, who died in 1989, got a bad press in the West; it was suggested that he paid artists' families a fraction of what paintings were worth and that he must have had KGB connections to have arranged his exit. The Russians I spoke to have more charitable memories; he paid reasonable prices, given the circumstances, they say, and helped stimulate an artistic renaissance. His home was always open to visitors and he was generous to young artists who came to look at his collection.

Valeri Dudakov also collects avant-garde art and used to swap with Costakis. He explains that between 1953 and 1967 there arose a new generation of artists who were consciously following in the footsteps of Malevich, Filonov and Tatlin. A 'non-comformist' art was born because the painters had seen the banned art in collections such as that of Costakis.

Dudakov collects Russian art over a 100-year spectrum; his earliest paintings are by the turn-of-the-century Symbolists, who did their work when Russian art was bound up with theatre and ballet and full of colourful vivacity - which was to gain international fame through Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. His collection carries on through the avant-garde 1920s and is completed by contemporary Russian art. Present-day Russian art is primarily figurative; the accent is on myth and magic, expressed in Surrealist and Expressionist styles. Dudakov keeps his modern stuff in the kitchen, since the historical periods claim the sitting room, dining room and bedroom. He claims his combination of contemporary and older modern art works because both appeal to the same sort of taste. There are many Russians with this kind of collection, he says. It would not seem so logical in the West, where the afficionados of minimal and conceptual art are unlikely to be drawn to the figurative art of earlier periods.

The 70-year-old twins Iosif and Yakov Rzhevsky, who were indistinguishable until Iosif kindly grew a beard, do not agree with Dudakov's perspective on Russian art. Their superb collection of paintings runs from roughly 1800 to 1900 and illustrates how the colourful explosion of Symbolist art is a logical conclusion to the achievements of the earlier Russian Realists and Romantics.

Their tiny St Petersburg apartment has the air of a palace; to walk in from the dirty communal stairway is like travelling back in time. The twins explain that they learnt much of their expertise from the few aristocrats who survived and remained in Russia after the Revolution; they formed the first generation of St Petersburg collectors, gathering round them, whenever they had the opportunity, furnishings, bibelots and pictures of the kind that they had known in childhood. This generation of collectors has only recently died out, according to the twins; their collections have been dispersed or given to museums - where they have disappeared into storerooms.

Yakov worked as a civil engineer and Iosif as a military engineer and their professional skill is reflected in the furniture and clocks which they have personally restored; much of their furniture was rescued from garbage tips, they say. Pride of place goes to a bracket clock commissioned by Catherine the Great for the Winter Palace from Reeves and Son of London. They found it falling to pieces, but have patiently restored it to its original condition - it will even play a waltz, a contemporary dance and a 'Russian Air' when they pull a string on its side. The twins have two rooms filled with exquisite furniture and pictures and you would not believe that they had anywhere to sleep. In fact, Yakov sleeps on an 18th-century mahogany sofa and Iosif on an Empire mahogany day bed, more or less side-by-side.

Across town in another sordid appartment block, Valentina Golod has created a palace boudoir fit for Madame de Pompadour. Twice married, she has two versions of her age; her passport says she is 98, but she says she is only 85. She is a very active secretary of the St Petersburg collectors' society. Born before the Revolution to a well-connected family, her taste, she claims, is a matter of upbringing. 'I am not a collector,' she says. 'I just like living in a beautiful interior.'

Her furniture is 18th-century French or Russian, sprouting ormolu whenever possible; she also likes elaborately carved giltwood mirrors. She has a large collection or ormolu mounted malachite - candelabra, vases, clocks, boxes, you name it. The gold and green dazzle in combination. She has a collection of Russian glass and a collection of portrait miniatures, mostly of Russian princesses and aristocrats of c 1750-1850. 'I have changed my chandeliers six or seven times, but now I have stopped because all three are 18th-century and Russian. They are very rare; I have bequeathed them to the Hermitage Museum,' she says. They explode from the ceiling in a cascade of crystal drops.

The two most memorable anecdotes concerning St Petersburg collectors come from Mrs Golod and Mrs Afonine. Mrs Golod showed me a 1930s photograph of herself with her first husband, beside a magnificent Boulle pedestal clock of around 1700. 'What have you done with it?' I asked. 'I ate it during the siege of Leningrad,' she replied. 'I exchanged it for a little porridge and some firewood.'

Mrs Afonine had some handsome pink brocade curtains patterned with flowers. I asked their origin. 'They have a story,' she chuckled. 'In 1917 my grandfather won a palace from Prince Paley at cards - we were first-class Jewish merchants and permitted to live in St Petersburg. The prince was the illegitimate son of Alexander II and knew he was not destined to keep his property. The curtains came from the palace - my father gave them to me.'

The pictures by Leonid Ogarev and Filonov's 'Easter Festival' are from the book 'The Art Collectors of Russia: Private Treasures Revealed' to be published by Tauris Parke Books, 45 Bloomsbury Square, London WC1A 2HY (ISBN 1-85043-740-8)

(Photographs omitted)