The Masterpieces sold

On November 8th, 1918, the Shchukin collection was nationalized by Lenin’s decree. The works remained in the Troubetskoy Palace, which became the “First Museum of Modern Western Painting“.

On December 19th, 1918, the Morozov Collection was nationalised by Lenin’s decree. The works remained in the Morozov Palace, which became the “Second Museum of Modern Western Painting”.

In 1923, the “Museum of Modern Western Painting” encompassing the other collections of Western modern art, but retaining its Shchukin and Morozov sections, became the “State Museum of Modern Western Art” (GNMZI) under the direction of Boris Chernovets. With around 800 works, the GMNZI became the world’s leading museum of modern art.

In 1928, all the works were collected in the former Morozov Palace, 21 Pretchistenka Street, following the takeover by the Soviet authorities of the Troubetskoy Palace, the former residence of Sergei Shchukin.

The year 1928 marked a turning point not only for the Soviet economy but also for most of the country’s museums. It was the beginning of a policy of exchange between the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad and the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts (GMNZI) in Moscow so that the latter could host works by old masters that it had been deprived of. About 70 works from the GMNZI were transferred to the Hermitage.

The GMNZI also had to deal with the Soviet policy of the 1930s of selling off heritage and museum treasures in order to obtain the currency needed to modernise the Soviet state.

An agency, the Antikvariat, opened its offices in Leningrad in the summer of 1928, responsible for managing and exporting the goods resulting from the confiscation and nationalisation of the country’s artistic resources and antiques, i.e. valuables from the State Treasury, the Church and the Tsar’s family, museums, the properties of the nobility, private collections or simply the personal savings of ordinary citizens.

L’Antikvariat has set its sights on some thirty paintings, including two from the collection of Ivan Morozov: “The Night Café” by Vincent Van Gogh and “Madame Cézanne in the Conservatory” by Paul Cézanne.

“Café de Nuit” by Vincent Van Gogh. Oil on canvas 72.4 x 92.1. 1888.

Purchased by Ivan Morozov at the exhibition “Zolotoie Rouno (The Golden Fleece)” for the sum of 3,000 roubles.

It is one of Van Gogh’s most interesting interiors. While the artist was painting the café at Arles railway station, he read an article on “Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the House of the Dead” which deeply disturbed him. He said of the “Café de Nuit”: “Through my painting I tried to show that a café is a place where you can go crazy and commit a crime. In short … to reproduce the atmosphere of the flames of hell … to convey the demonic power of the tavern trap”.

Invoice from “Zolotoie Rouno (the Golden Fleece)” for the purchase of the “Café de Nuit” .

Dear Sir,

Herewith sending you Van Gogh’s painting “The Night Café”, which you acquired at the “Golden Fleece Salon” exhibition, the editorial staff ask you to entrust our envoy with the money, for the sum of 7500 francs = 3000 roubles (in cash 40 kopecks for 1 franc – shipping, telegrams and customs charges).

    Nicolas Riabouchinski’s agent for the sold painting received 3000 roubles.

             André Krutatnikov

                                                                                 June 23rd, 1908.

“Madame Cézanne in the Park (Madame Cézanne in the Conservatory)”. Oil on Canvas 72 x 92. 1891.

Paul Cézanne was one of Ivan Morozov’s favourite painters. The 18 paintings of the artist were considered the jewel of the Morozov collection. Although it remained unfinished, this portrait of the artist’s wife is one of his most beautiful works.

Sell to Mr. Morosoff Ivan

for the sum of 50,000 francs two paintings by Cézanne:

Portrait of Madame Cézanne in the park

and landscape “le Pont” (the Bridge)

Received “on account” the sum of 10,000 francs

Paris on April 29th, 1911.

History of the sale of “Café de nuit” and “Madame Cézanne in the conservatory”.

e1. On expropriation :

By a decree of December 19th, 1918 signed by Lenin for the “Council of People’s Commissars“, the entire art collection of Ivan Morozov was nationalised.

The Council justifies this expropriation by “the necessity to use the collections according to the real needs of democratisation of the artistic and educational institutions of the Russian Federative Soviet Socialist Republic” (1).

Despite its original aim to democratise art, i.e. to provide public access to major works of art, the real reasons for artistic expropriation are economic gains, as Russian documents show.

Indeed, as early as February 1919, only two months after the decree of nationalisation of the Morozov collection was issued, a commission of experts was set up to select and evaluate confiscated objects for sale abroad. The commission, headed by Maxim Gorky, was subordinate to the Ministry of Foreign Trade (2).

Testifying to the urgency of finding foreign buyers, Lenin wrote the following on March 5th, 1920:

“Particularly urgent measures must be taken to speed up the sorting of valuables. If we delay too long, they will not give us any more in Europe and the United States” (3).

At the beginning of 1920, Lenin transformed the Commission into the “State Deposit for Precious Objects” (known as Gokhran), in order to collect precious works of art from nationalized collections with the aim of selling them abroad for foreign currency.

As Lenin clearly acknowledges in a letter to A.O. Alsky (an official of the Gokhran), dated May 29th, 1920 :

“We must quickly find as many valuables as possible for trade with foreign countries” (4)

On November 18th, 1921, Lenin wrote to the secret police (La Tcheka) that “In order to gather in one place all the valuables currently scattered in various institutions, I propose that Gokhran should receive all the valuables in the hands of La Tcheka (5).

In March 1922, fearing that they would be exposed in the Western press, Trotsky requested that these seizures be disguised as “famine relief operations” so as not to arouse suspicion (7).

Sales of works of art accelerated in the early 1930s. In the spring of 1930, 73 European masterpieces (including paintings by Titian, Rembrandt and Raphael) were reportedly transferred from the Hermitage to Moscow for “cleaning and restoration” (8) , when they were in fact on their way to Western buyers, including Andrew Mellon (9).

As Robert C. Williams points out in his book “Russian Art and American Money, 1900-1940″ transactions between the Matthiesen Gallery in Berlin and Knoedler & Compagny in New York generally involved payment in Swiss francs into the account of the Matthiesen Gallery in Zurich. The paintings were sent to the Gallery in Berlin, inspected by a Metropolitan Museum official and then shipped to New York. Knoedler & Compagny retained a 12% commission on all purchases.

2. Terms of sale to Stephen Clark:

In April 2008, ArtNews published an article by Konstantin Akinsha, an eminent expert on Russian art, which reads as follows:

In the 1930s, Stephen Clark had purchased, via the Knoedler Gallery, four works from the collection of the New Museum of Modern Art (including Van Gogh’s “Café de Nuit” now in the Yale University Museum). Despite Soviet assurances about the legality of these sales, he had had problems with the heirs of Mikhail Riabouchinsky, the former owner of one of the paintings. Clark was not sure that the sale of nationalized works after the revolution met all legal requirements. William A.M Burden, head of the board of directors, had also advised caution” (10).

The position of the Russian Museums :

In 1993, Albert Kostenevich, curator of the Hermitage Museum, stated in the foreword to the Essen Exhibition catalogue that in September 1918 Lenin had signed a decree prohibiting the export or sale of objects of artistic or historical importance abroad: “The Foreign Trade Commission can only issue an export licence for cultural works of the past and works of art if they have been certified by and with the permission of the People’s Commissariat for Education“. The Commissioner explained that due to the economic conditions of the time, prices were low and “it was therefore decided to sell masterpieces, not by auction, but through secret agreements with museums and private collectors“. He further explained that most of the masterpieces had gone to the United States because “the United States did not have diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union and therefore there was no fear of prosecution“.

The Commissioner went on to explain that “in early 1933 the situation changed. It became clear that President Roosevelt was inclined to recognise the Soviet Union, which could lead to a number of lawsuits“. It was therefore decided to speed up the sale process.

According to Kostenevitch, the sale was conducted in a very secretive manner, adding that Clark knew that his reputation would suffer greatly if it was suspected that he had acted in this way (11).

In 2002, Marina Senenko, former curator of the Pushkin Museum, wrote the following in a study on the Russian treatment of private collections: “In March 1918, in a Committee resolution, several important collections, including those of Ivan Morozov, Sergei and Dmitry Shchukin, were referred to as having been donated to the Russian Republic but as still being in the possession of their former owners“. It confirms that on September 19th, 1918, “a decree prohibits the export and orders the registration and preservation of works of art and antiquities in general” (12).

– The position of intermediaries:

At the beginning of 1933, Nicolas Ilyn, director of Antikvariat in Russia, offered a group of nine paintings by Van Gogh, Renoir, Gauguin and Cézanne, including Van Gogh’s “Night Cafe“, for a total of $250,000. In turn, Charles Henschel, president of Knoedler & Compagny, sends a list of certain works “for which I could have clients” (13).

On April 21st, 1933, Charles Henschel sent a cable to the Matthiesen Galerie, the German sales intermediary, in the following terms :

“Have a client definitely interested in Madame Cézanne, Van Gogh Cafe, Renoir Chambermaid, Degas Green Singer. Can you give an attractive price for the 4 in dollars, unable to buy marks in quantity here”. (14).

It was reported that Henschel “was concerned about the legal complications of buying and selling works of art confiscated from private hands, because Russian emigrants could later sue to recover their stolen property“. Ilyn replied to Henschel that “this would not be a problem, since the Soviet government was still not recognised and therefore had no voice in the American courts“.

Heinz Mansfeld, director of the Matthiesen Gallery in Berlin, also wrote to Henschel that they “could continue to use Berlin as a safe transit point because of the Rapallo Treaty of 1922, by which Germany recognised the Soviet Union and thus its nationalisation of private property“. “Berlin is a legally safe place to do business” urged Mansfeld, and therefore Knoedler had to continue to use the Matthiesen Gallery for his purchases in order to ensure the legal security of the company (15).

In 1935, during proceedings before the United States Tax Appeal Board in the case of A.W. Mellon v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, Charles Henschel testified about Russian sales and made the following statements:

“In the autumn of 1928, two of my friends who were in Europe, in the art world, told me that it was possible to take some of the beautiful paintings out of the Hermitage in Leningrad, but that for these negotiations it would be necessary to keep absolute secrecy, because the Soviet officials did not want the general public to know that they could thus dispose of their magnificent paintings”.

“The delivery was made in Berlin for the reason that at the time the United States had not recognised the Soviet government, and we thought it was preferable that the delivery be taken by someone in a country that had recognised the Soviet Union, so that there could be no problems with the transaction” (16)

3. Russian survey on the legality of sales of cultural objects by Russian museums

In December 2008, the Director of the Hermitage Museum, Mikhail Piotrovsky, announced that “President Medvedev appointed a commission to raise and study the question of the extent to which the sale by the Soviet government of works of art from museum collections was legal under the laws in force at that time” (17).

Since 2007, the then First Deputy Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, had been heading the “State Commission for the Coordination of the Organisation and Conduct of a Comprehensive Inspection for the Preservation of Cultural Property of Museums of the Russian Federation“. The inspection covered the museum collections for the entire 20th century.

In 2007, a member of the commission, the Deputy Minister of Culture, commented on the first 6 months of the investigation saying: “We intend to carry out this investigation to the end – in the interest of historical truth, and to try to understand how the laws were circumvented and whether there is a way to recover some cultural works” (18).

On December 9th, 2008, the Union of Russian Museums reported that President Medvedev had issued a decree creating a commission of enquiry into the legality of transfers of works of art belonging to museums during the Soviet era (19).

On January 12th, 2009, President Medvedev raised the issue of the legality of the sales in terms proving that they clearly lacked a legal basis: “You and I understand something that happened in the 1920s-1930s – something that, unfortunately, happened mainly on the basis of direct decisions by the authorities. Now, whatever decisions we take, we can only talk about recovering these objects, either by buying them back from private collections or bringing them back to their motherland by other means…….. These were decisions taken by the government; certainly they are decisions that have to be condemned as inappropriate, and indeed sometimes criminal. Nevertheless, there is nothing we can do about it now, except to buy them back” (20).

The Matthiesen Gallery

The sale to Stephen Clark took place via the Matthiesen Gallery in April 1933 during the Nazi regime in Germany. Hitler had been appointed Chancellor of Germany on January 30th, 1933 and took full executive and legislative power on March 23rd.

The Matthiesen Gallery was involved in Nazi art plundering. It is mentioned, together with 2 of its directors (Heinz Mansfeld and Margarethe Noelle) in the 1946 final report of the Office of Strategic Services Art Looting Investigation Unit (OSS ALIU) in a “biographical index of individuals and organisations involved in art looting” (Appendix 1, final report of the OSS ALIU, May 1st, 1946, p.1-16-55).

The Matthiesen Gallery acted as an art dealer for Hermann Goering. In 1940 the Gallery acquired 2 looted paintings from the Goudstikker Collection in the Netherlands and sold them directly to Hermann Goering in 1942 (Appendix 2, OSS ALIU, Consolidated Interrogation Report N°2, “The Goering Collection“, September 15th, 1945, p1-72-73).

The Matthiesen Gallery provided works for Nazi auctions, including the infamous “Degenerate Art” sale of June 30th, 1939 (Appendix 3, auction catalogue, June 30th, 1939, p.1-66).

Knoedler & Company

The sale to Stephen Clark was organised by Charles Henschel, President of Knoedler & Company, who, on April 21st, 1933, sent a telegram to the Matthiesen Gallery saying: “Have customer definitely interested Cézanne Madame, Van Gogh Café, Renoir Serveuse, Degas Green Singer . Can you give an attractive price for the 4 in dollars as there are not enough marks available here“.

Knoedler & Company was fully aware of the illegal nature of the transaction. As Charles Henschel, president of Knoedler & Company and direct intermediary of the sale for Clark admitted during a lawsuit concerning Mellon’s purchases “In the autumn of 1928, 2 of my friends who were in Europe, in the field of art, told me that it was possible to get some of the beautiful paintings out of the Hermitage in Leningrad, but that for these negotiations absolute secrecy would have to be kept, because Soviet officials did not want the general public to know that they could thus have their magnificent paintings at their disposal” (Appendix 4, Dreamworld and Catastrophe”, Susan Buck-Moess, MIT Press, 2002, footnote 91).

Knoedler & Company participated in the Nazi art plundering. The company is mentioned in the 1946 final report of the Office of Strategic Services Art Looting Investigations Unit (OSS ALIU), which indicates that documents mention that Knoedler & Company was involved in sales to German buyers (Appendix 5, Final Report of the OSS ALIU, May 1st, 1946, pp. 1-16-108).

Knoedler & Company was sued on several occasions for selling Nazi looted art in the United States.

– In 1999, Knoedler was sued by the Seattle Art Museum for fraud, breach of warranty of title and negligence of representation for having sold to Prentice and Virginia Bloedel in 1954 a painting by Matisse which turned out to have been looted by the Nazis. The museum had received the painting through a bequest from Bloedel. The affair ended at the end of 2000 with a financial compensation from the Knoedler to the Seattle Museum.

– In 2003, Knoedler was sued by the Springfield Museum in Massachusetts for selling a painting by Jacopo Bassano to the museum in 1955 that turned out to have been stolen from the Italian Embassy in Warsaw during World War II. .

– in 2007, in the case Julius H. Schoeps v. Andrew Lloyd Webber Art Foundation concerning the recovery of a Picasso painting sold in Germany at a forced sale, it was alleged that Knoedler had subsequently purchased the painting . .


(1) Décret de Lénine 19 décembre 1918  (2) “The looting of Russian by the Bolcheviks”, Sean McMeekin, Yale University, 2008  (3)  (4)  (5) Lenin, Polnoie Sobranie Sochinenii, 5ème édition, Moscou, 1965, vol.54, pp22-23, 49, 131-132, 342  (7)J.M.Meijer, The Trotsky Papers 1917-1922, II, The Hague Mouton, pp671-672  (8) Ya.Boyarsky in Iskousstvo, nos.7-8, sept-oct.1929, p.6;Zhizn’Mouzeia; Biulleten Gosoudarstvenoï Mouzeia Iziashchnykh Iskousstv, août.1930, pp.20-21, 72-76  (9) “Russain Art and American Money, 1900-1940”, Robert C.Williams, Harvard University Press, 1980, pp.8-9  (10)  (11) Catalogue de l’expositon de Essen, 1993  (12) “Moscow private collections formed in the late 19th century and their fate in 1918-1924”, Marina Senenko, 2002,  (13) Russain Art and American Money, 1900-1940″, Robert C.Williams, Harvard University Press, 1980  (14) Texte du télégramme dans “Russain Art and American Money, 1900-1940″, Robert C.Williams, Harvard University Press, 1980″ (15) Russain Art and American Money, 1900-1940”, Robert C.Williams, Harvard University Press, 1980, p.34  (16) Official Report of Proceedings before the U.S Board of Tax Appeals, “A.W.Mellon, Petitioner v. Commissioner of the Internal Revenue, Respondent”, docket n°.76499, quoted in “Russian Art and American Money, 1900-1940”, Robert Williams, Harvard University Press, 1980, pp187-188  (17)  (18)  (19)  (20) Conférence de presse du Président Russe Dmitry Medvedev, 12 janvier 2009

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