Art aristocracy returns to opulent age of the Tsars: Geraldine Norman joined the first banquet at the Winter Palace in St Petersburg since 1917

THE Hermitage in St Petersburg has hosted its first banquet since the Palace was stormed by Bolshevik revolutionaries in 1917.

Now one of the world's greatest art galleries, the former Winter Palace of the Tsars had not experienced the tantrums of French chefs for eight decades. The dinner on Tuesday night for 58 guests, including many powerful names in the art world, was flown from Paris by the caterers Potel et Chabot and warmed up in the museum canteen.

It has taken a Bolivian millionaire, George Ortiz, and his collection of antiquities - now accepted as the world's greatest privately-owned archive - to break through protocol and bring lavish entertainment back to the city of the Tsars. About 280 masterpieces from the Ortiz collection went on public exhibition yesterday in the white, pillared Nickolaevskiy Hall. Their owner has paid for the special display cases and lighting.

In return, Mr Ortiz was allowed to hold a dinner party in the rococo foyer of the Catherine the Great Theatre. The empress entertained in this room, and its use for formal dinners remained a tradition of the imperial family. Six tables with yellow and blue cloths and flower-decked candelabras received the top brass of St Petersburg mingled with the international jet-set. It was black tie for the foreigners and dark suits for the Russians.

Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan fell into deep conversation with the powerful Mayor of St Petersburg, Dr Anatoly Sobchak, one of Boris Yeltsin's new men. Some aristocrats were shy of using their titles; Mr and Mrs Orloff were among the guests, he a collateral descendent of Count Gregory Orloff, Catherine the Great's favourite, and she the Princess Fabia of Egypt, King Farouk's daughter. Among the museum top-brass in attendance were Phillip de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan in New York; Ted Pillsbury, director of the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth, Texas; Dr Felix Baumann, of the Kunsthaus in Zurich; and Norman Rosenthal, director of exhibitions at the London Royal Academy.

Dr Mikhail Piotrovsky, the bright young director of the Hermitage, had insisted that there should be only one main dish, much to the disappointment of Mr and Mrs Ortiz. They kicked off with caviar straight from the Caspian fisheries, blinis and sour cream; then came Chapon Souvaroff with wild rice, brie, fresh salad, Charlotka aux poires, exotic fruits and coffee with chocolates.

Research in the museum archives had not revealed when the last banquet was held in the palace, but Dr Piotrovsky suggested it was likely to have been well before the First World War.

(Photograph omitted)

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