[JURIST] A Russian government commission is examining the legality of the Soviet Union's pre-World War II artwork sales, an official from the State Hermitage Museum [official website] said on Tuesday. Museum director Mikhail Piotrovsky said in his St. Petersburg state-of-the-museum report that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev [official profile; JURIST news archive] has commissioned the group to investigate whether the sales were legal under the laws at the time. The museum has no plans [Bloomberg report] to attempt to recover or demand return of any artwork, regardless of the commission's findings, but instead plans to use the information uncovered to defend against attempts by the German government and the Russian Orthodox Church to recover artwork from Russia. Piotrovsky explained that museum's goal [ArtInfo report] is to keep all artwork in the collections where it currently sits.
Hundreds of paintings were confiscated from private owners and churches by the Bolsheviks after they took power in 1917 and were nationalized and sold in the 1920s and early 1930s. Twenty of these paintings eventually helped create the US National Gallery of Art [official website], in Washington, DC. Among those sold was Raphael's The Alba Madonna (1511), bought in 1931 by then-US Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon, who purchased and donated all of the works now displayed in the National Gallery. Many other paintings were destroyed or placed in state museums like the State Hermitage Museum.