Russia’s prestigious The State Hermitage is a museum of art located in the heart of St. Petersburg. It was established in 1764 by Catherine the Great and has been accessible to the public since 1852. It prizes itself by housing the largest collection of paintings in the world and, overall, possessing an impressive three million items in total. The cultural richness of the museum acts as a global allure for millions of visitors worldwide.
Recently it was the 250th anniversary of the grand institution, the preparations of which have ultimately caused a stir; it is as if political disputes are slyly attempting to play Russian roulette within the art world.
One such politics versus arts conundrum was instigated by the enraged reaction of the Greek PM – Antonis Samaras – upon hearing the news that the British Museum has loaned the statue of god Ilissos in order to commemorate the institution’s anniversary. This backlash is unsurprising as it reignited the Greek government’s long-standing claim to the 2,500 year old Elgrin Marbles, to which the Greek river god Ilissos belongs, that were extradited from Athens by Lord Elgrin in the 19th century (the British ambassador of the Ottoman Empire). Mr Samaras has deemed the move reprehensible, as he stated: “The decision of the British Museum to give out on loan one of the Pantheon sculptures for exhibit in St. Petersburg is an affront to the Greek people.” In addition, the political clash with the art world is also rooted at the fact that Greece refuses to recognise the British Museum’s ownership of the statues, which are a large collection consisting of 30% of the display from the Pantheon. This was made apparent by Samaras adding that: “The Pantheon and the Marbles have been looted. The sculptures are priceless. We Greeks are one with our history and civilisation, which cannot be broken up, loaned out, or conceded.”
However, the art world aims to preserve its prestige and integrity by standing its ground. “The politics of both museums have been that the colder the politics between governments the more important the relationship between museums”, the director of the Hermitage, Neil McGregor, stated. The art world must remain a liberal place that encompasses culture and the public’s ability, globally, to admire it, therefore, it must relentlessly battle in order to preserve this purpose. Another whimsical prelude to the Hermitage’s 250th anniversary involves tax agents, a billionaire art collector and his treasured Fabergé egg. And no, this is not a comedic extenuation of the 2004 heist film Ocean’s Twelve, it’s the real thing!
Alexander Ivanov is a billionaire arts magnate who owns the world’s most expensive Fabergé egg. He purchased it in 2007 in London for a hefty £8.9 million. He has accused Britain of ambushing his German museum in a catastrophic attempt to seize the egg and stop it being presented to the museum as a birthday gift by President Putin. Ivanov has voiced his concerns as he said, “It felt very much like the main aim of the raid was to put pressure on us, to find the egg and to stop this presentation.”
HMRC, along with 50 other investigators, instigated the raid, supported by HMRC’s claims, that Ivanov’s museum has not paid £70,000 in VAT of arts collectibles purchased in London, and one of said items was the Fabergé.
The location of the egg remained uncertain until the dispute ultimately resolved itself when President Putin presented it to the museum on the anniversary, with claims that it was given to the Kremlin anonymously. The Hermitage’s exuberant history deserves to be celebrated, but it certainly seems that no grandiose event goes without its hiccups.