In the late 1920s, when the Soviets began selling some of the most valuable art in the Hermitage Museum to finance their centralized economic plan, a forward-thinking collector from a feisty country without a national art museum saw a big opportunity. The American industrialist Andrew Mellon wanted old masters to match his nation’s growing wealth and military prowess. Despite the depression, Mellon and a few other wealthy patrons knew this was a rare chance to buy up a great museum’s treasures. Mellon bought the “The Alba Madonna” by Raphael and 20 other works, which now hang at the National Gallery of Art. Armenian tycoon Calouste Gulbenkian bought “Mezzetin” by Jean Antoine Watteau, now in a gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Soviets bought tractors. We all know what happened to their grand economic plan.
The shameful sale at the Hermitage is a dark spot on one of the world’s great museums, but also an illustration of a timeless economic cycle that has more to do with realpolitik than art: after rapid industrialization comes wealth, sometimes hegemony, and in turn, an influx of the world’s treasures. Culture is always the pride of the polis. Nothing screams victory like van Eyck.