NEW YORK—On Sept. 14 billionaire Alisher Usmanov acquired the entire art collection of legendary cellist Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007) and his wife, Galina Vishnevskaya, for more than $70 million. Usmanov immediately announced plans to return the trove—which includes paintings by Boris Grigoriev, Nikolai Roerich and Vladimir Borovikovsky—to Russia.
Usmanov’s bid preempted Sotheby’s planned sale of the 450-lot collection of fine and decorative Russian art from the 18th-to-20th centuries, which had been expected to fetch as much as $40 million. Sotheby’s says that the price Usmanov paid was “substantially higher than the highest presale expectation.”
Mikhail Shvydkoi, chief of Russia’s Federal Culture Agency (Rosskultura), expressed gratitude to the Uzbek-born Usmanov, stating that “for Russian culture and Russia as a whole, all things relating to the name of Mstislav Rostropovich are invaluable.”
At a Sept. 18 press conference in Moscow, attended by Shvydkoi and Mikhail Kamensky, director of Sotheby’s Moscow office (Usmanov was not present), Shvydkoi announced that he and Rosskultura had played a key role in negotiating with Sotheby’s and in finding a buyer to acquire the collection. Shvydkoi said he was grateful to Sotheby’s for agreeing to cancel the auction despite having already identified more than 600 preregistered bidders.
Usmanov’s press secretary stressed that he had paid for the collection out of his own pocket and not from the funds of his companies or his charity foundation Art and Sport. Specific plans for the collection remain unclear. Shvydkoi did not give detailed information about whether Usmanov would donate the collection to the state or else loan it, whole or in part, to a museum.
Shvydkoi told the newspaper Kommersant he had started negotiations with Vishnevskaya to buy the collection more than a month ago. Vishnevskaya had asked Paris-based Russian dealer Vladimir Tsarenkov to reappraise the collection.
Shvydkoi began discussions about the possibility of the government’s buying the collection with the Ministry of Finance but realized there was not enough time for the allocation of such large funds. He then sought a businessman who could buy the collection. At one point the negotiations came to a standstill because Shvydkoi thought Tsarenkov’s valuation of the collection was too high.
That might have ended negotiations had Boris Yeltsin’s daughter Tatiana Yumasheva not stepped in. The Yeltsin family was friendly with Rostropovich, and Tatiana notified Shvydkoi that Vishnevskaya was disposed to settle for a lower price.
After a second round of negotiations, Usmanov agreed to buy the collection, whereupon Shyvdkoi wrote to Vishnevskaya, on behalf of the government of the Russian Federation, asking her to cancel the auction sale and to release the collection to Usmanov, acting not as a collector but as a patron of art and potential donor. A similar letter was sent to Lord Poltimore, chairman of Sotheby’s U.K.
Vishnevskaya also expressed the wish that works from the collection be deposited with the museums of St. Petersburg. However, museums in Moscow already are jostling for position. Irina Antonova, director, the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, has stated that the best place for the trove is the Museum of Private Collections, which is a subdivision of the Pushkin Museum.