Letter: St Petersburg treasure

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The Independent Online
Sir: William Hayter, who was our ambassador in Moscow 1953-57, is an unreliable guide to the provenance of turn-of-the-century French art in St Petersburg after that time (Letters, 7 April). These paintings are displayed at the Hermitage and include not only works by Renoir, Sisley, Pissarro and Degas but 'one of the best collections in Europe of the pictures of Paul Cezanne, 15 works by Paul Gauguin belonging to his late Tahiti period and four canvases by Vincent van Gogh.

'The collection of paintings by Henri Matisse is even fuller, the Hermitage possesses 37. It also has 37 works by Pablo Picasso, but they all belong to the early stages of his art (the Blue Period, Pink Period and Cubism).' This quotation is from The Hermitage, a translation of a Russian guidebook published in 1972. One of the illustrations is Dance by Matisse, which you chose to illustrate Sir William's letter.

The bulk of the collection belonged to two St Petersburg merchants who had bought them at what must now be considered bargain prices. Some they had commissioned. They left Russia at the beginning of the Revolution and the paintings were kept safely by the Ministry of Education, a minor miracle in revolutionary times.

One of the merchants, interviewed by BBC Radio some years ago, said that they had intended leaving the paintings to the nation; it was just that the nation had them earlier than they had wished; but he was glad that they had been well looked after.

Certainly in 1981 and 1988 visitors on guided tours of the Hermitage were taken to see rooms 314-333 and 343-350, where these works are displayed. Just possibly this could have been done to relieve pressure on room 254 on the floor below, where there are (or were before reclassification) 26 Rembrandts.

Yours faithfully,


Hove, East Sussex

7 April