News and Adventures
While the story of the acquisition of "The Hospital Collection" is in no way typical of how we found and acquired paintings in Russia over the last six years, maybe the fact that the story is unique makes it typical. In every collection, almost every painting has its own tale.
The saga of our acquisition of these seven extraordinary paintings begins in November of 1992 at St. Petersburg. Alexi Zoubach had dropped by his Institutes' cafeteria for an infrequent visit. Alexi was a senior and like many upperclassmen, he found school boring - the kind of place he wanted to spend as little time as possible.
In the corner, at their usual table sat four or five of his buddies. Like Alexi, they were preparing to head out on ships to all corners of the world. The Water Transport Institute, while not glamorous, provided, especially in the Communist time, not only the forbidden fruit of international travel but the possibility of fortune. Of course the money wouldn't come from salary, as a Russian sailor made only 25% of the average world pay for the same occupation. The fortune would come from trading. A case of vodka for a VCR, Russian caviar for dozens of Levis jeans - anything that could be obtained in Russia for virtually any consumer item from the west. The fall of communism had somewhat reduced the possible riches of the Russian sailor, but they still enjoyed a better living than most citizens.
Alexi's specific field of education was large ship engines. The longer he studied, the more sure he was that he didn't want to repair or design engines on Russian commercial ships for his entire life. An intern cruise to the Caribbean had taught him only that 30 sailors could stay drunk for 34 straight days without the ship sinking or getting lost. He got back from his cruise determined that he must find an alternative to the sea.
Although Alexi was showing up less to class, his scores on exams and written reports were better his senior year than any other time of his education. The scores should have been higher - he paid a lot of money for his tests and papers his entire senior year. The Institute's professors were insulted with an unlivable salary of approximately $20 per month and for $5 or $10, they would be happy to sell a high grade. While tuition was free, jobs were scarce and the Institute gave students a stipend of only $4 per month. Most students had parents who helped, but those who's families didn't or couldn't were always available to other students to research and write papers for a few extra rubles. So Alexi was making an unusual stop by his Institute to collect some research papers he had "commissioned".
Back at the cafeteria, somewhere during the fraternity-like pushing, needling and joking, Alexi told his friends how he had just returned from a two-day visit to Moscow. Alexi paid for the round of coffee (spiked with a bit of two star Georgian cognac), explaining that he had just made the extraordinary sum of $70 from an eccentric American who was looking for Russian paintings.
The artist, Sasha Borisovich, was well trained, but he wasn't even born during the period for which I was interested (1940s to 1960s). After thirty minutes of looking at the young man's work, I gave him the speech I had given countless times before.
I tried to sound sincere, "You're a very good artist but. . ." I was tired, the trip back from Moscow would be long so I wanted an early escape from this unprofitable meeting. Over a cup of tea, the awkward conversation rambled and I looked for a way to escape the studio as courteously as possible.
I turned to Alexi and said, "Oh my, it's 6:30 and we have a train to catch."
Alexi, not understanding my hint to escape, responded, "The train leaves in five hours and we have nothing between now and then."
It was going to be a long night. Occasionally over the next hour a sentence or two would catch my interest, but mostly I tried to daydream while still looking interested in the conversation.
The conversation took a quick turn that jarred my daydreaming. Sasha Borisovich mentioned that he had seen a rather extraordinary collection of realistic paintings from the 1950s and 1960s several years earlier. My chin turned up, my energy level mobilized and my eyelids went to full attention.
The young artist said he'd seen the collection during his second year at the Institute. He said that would have been several years earlier. The student explained that four years ago he was accompanying a long since lost girlfriend on a hospital visit to see an ailing aunt when he saw the paintings. Years later, try as he might, the artist couldn't remember the name of the hospital - or was it a clinic? He could only remember that the Moscow facility was old. In his defense, the student said at the time he was thinking only of his girlfriend Olga's beautiful blond braided hair and not of the old aunt or the awful condition of the hospital.
Besides his girlfriend's hair, something else stuck in the mind of the Surikov Institute of Art student. His recollection of the group of extraordinary paintings hanging throughout the hospital was detailed, vivid and very exciting. Sasha's memory included descriptions of bold brush strokes, animated, red-faced children on sleds, beautifully crafted mothers and daughters and lots of ballerinas.
The rush of blood to my face was like a couple of quick shots of Stoley. I was fully awake and excited but terribly frustrated. The Moscow region boasts of 250 hospitals, countless clinics and almost all of them are old facilities.
Despite grand reward offers, endless attempts to prompt the Sasha's memory remained unsuccessful. We returned to St. Petersburg. Numerous inquiries were made, but we were not able to track down the paintings. Time passed. The "hospital paintings" were forgotten, or at least put on the back burner.
The collection might have remained on indefinite hold had not two conditions began to influence the Russian art world. First, grand economic changes began to greatly affect all businesses in Russia, and secondly, the art world had begun to discover "Russian Realism" as the best realism school in the twentieth century.
As to the grand economic changes facing Russia, while the two groups hardest hit by the "liberalization" of the Russian economy were old and young Russians, the changes also wreaked havoc with both Russian and foreign business. The elderly were shell shocked. Not only had they lost their ideology, but also their sense of economic well being.
This generation of elderly had sacrificed mightily to build "utopian communism". Many of these people had lived through the 1917 Revolution, the terrible civil war and famine that followed, the collectivization of the land, Stalin, the Great Patriotic War and its untold sacrifice, Khrushchev's reforms, the period of stagnation under Brezhnev and finally the anarchistic reforms of Gorbachev. In a normal time and in a normal country, each individual epic just named would be the defining event of the generation. Yet in the case of Russians born just after the turn of the century, these milestones came one year after another. Each bringing its own brand of pain and problems. This generation in their youth, was now called upon to sacrifice or postpone almost anything good in their life to prepare for the "grand future".
Now, old and broken, these senior citizens were now told that their sacrifice was for nothing. Not only was Stalin no good, but that "father Lenin" himself had been a selfish, evil murderer. The ideology of their lives had been swept out underneath them like a rug pulled out under an old dog.
One old artist, an unabashed communist and atheist, told me that his loss of ideology would be like the Pope suddenly and infallibly announcing to all the nuns and priests in the world that the Catholic Church, after all, wasn't divine and that the evil church was being dissolved.
The old artist said, "The philosophical and emotional rationale for existence was dead."
But the loss of ideology was just the beginning of terror for the post-communist elderly. Not only was their life's work and sacrifice a waste, a mistake, but their financial future was also in shambles. I remember speaking to a widow who had, with her husband, scrimped and saved to build up a 20,000 ruble savings account. The couple had foregone a car, a dacha and even fresh vegetables to assure themselves a comfortable retirement. The 20,000 rubles had been saved in the 1940s, 50s, 60s and 70s, when a good salary was 150 rubles a month. The money represented countless toil and sacrifice. With economic liberalization, inflation struck. In six short months the price of a loaf of bread went from 10 kopeks to 1,000 rubles, or a 1,000% increase. Over the next year their 40 year savings was reduced to the value of 8 loaves of bread, or about $4 U.S. But economic turmoil and anarchy touched not only the very old but also the very young.
While the strong new business class prospered, even flourished, a price was paid by the weak and helpless in Russia. As ideologies changed and factories closed literally by the thousands, alcohol consumption soared. The death expectancy for a Russian male dropped from 66 to 57 years over a three year period, the most dramatic life expectancy decline ever recorded. As society's institutions fell, the Russians seemed unable to build a new foundation quickly enough to replace the old. Into the void moved the strong, especially the mafia. One of the great losers from this anarchy are the children. Education dropped as a priority, teacher's salaries, always low, became unlivable. Perhaps most devastated was the orphanages, left to virtually fund themselves. One orphanage our company tried to help held 32 children from ages 4 to 16. The administration was paid about twenty-five cents per day, per child for food. Two or three children were sharing a bed with the unlucky weak ones on the hard floor with a scratchy wool blanket over and under them. Because the staff was paid less than $25 per month and since their salaries often went unpaid for several months, many good people quit. The children, facing cold water, often cold rooms, little or no attention from staff, frequently headed off into "packs" where they lived in groups in broken, abandoned Soviet apartment blocks. (An absorbing photo essay of these children's plight is available by photojournalist Yevgeni Mokhorev.)
After some contact with the orphanage our company was helping, it was decided that after food, the next priority was trying to relieve the boredom of the children so that they would stay off the streets and in the orphanage. The TV set at the institution worked but had an unrepairable frustrating flip. We bought the orphanage a new Sony TV and video recorder. A few weeks later a staff member dropped by the orphanage and found the Sony had been replaced by the old "flipping" TV. The director of the orphanage had taken the new TV home. I was outraged. When I met with him he explained that what he had done was unforgivable, but he wanted to explain that he had three children at home. His $25 a month put his family below the poverty level. His wife was sick and her factory had closed. The family had to pay "tips" to the doctors. Some weeks there wasn't enough money for food. His oldest daughter cried everyday before school because her clothes were torn and very old fashioned. The other students were teasing her.
The director said, "I don't expect you to forgive me, just understand a little bit."
I looked into his eyes and didn't see a bad man, just a desperate one.
The economic changes in Russia affected, like all other businesses, our art business. For the first several years we took great advantage of $2.00 first class overnight train rides, of $40 four hour plane flights and of deluxe hotel rooms for $3.00 per night. It was like price fantasy land. Yes, these prices usually guaranteed problems with availability, but we usually had "connections" and for double the price we were in the hotel or on the train or plane.
This lead to a painting acquisition strategy of a number of "search groups" spreading out to all corners of the old Soviet Union. These employee groups took lists organized from our St. Petersburg office. The office spent weeks calling artist unions, exhibit halls, regional cultural magazines, ex-union officials, political officials, etc. culling valuable lists in specific cities, lists to be used by our search groups. At any one time we might have groups in Lithuania, Central Asia, the Urals and the Ukraine. The prices of these trips being low, we could send our three person teams out like the snow covering Siberia. With monetary "liberalization", a trip to Moscow on the train went from $2 to $60, a hotel from $3 to $175 and a plane ticket from $40 to $800. The decision to send six or eight search teams out constantly, for the first time, required a financial consideration.
In September of 1994, after a day-long meeting with all of our search teams, fresh from trips all over the ex-Soviet Union, we looked through thousands of photographs of paintings. The photos represented several months of work and tens of thousands of dollars. The photos were crap. I pushed my hand across the table knocking dozens of photos to the floor. The photos were quickly followed to the floor by several Styrofoam cups with coffee and cigarette butts as the cups had been used as ashtrays.
"In a word, it's QUALITY", I told the staff. "We are at war with the art dealers from Britain, France, Italy, Japan, Scandinavia, even Turkey and Hong Kong. The thing that separates us from all of our competition is that we were first. We built the world market and now are being chased by all these other art dealers. In addition, to being better organized, we have better people and so we find better paintings. We need to spend less time "searching" and more time finding great pieces."
The room was silent. We ordered out for Russian pizza, extra ketchup was requested.
It was Igor Nazareitchouk, our "veteran" employee, who suggested that if it was quality we were after, perhaps he should he check back with some museums with which he had some contact previously. Almost as an afterthought Igor added that perhaps we should also try to find the elusive "hospital painting" collection.
In response to Igor's suggestion, September of 1994 saw the first systematic effort to locate the perhaps "mythic" Hospital Collection. The St. Petersburg staff took five "search teams" and headed to Moscow, headquartered in the charmingly dumpy Peking Hotel. Alexi Zoubach was the task leader and he had split the city into five parts. Each team would be assigned a geographical area.
The Russian capitol has more than ten million inhabitants and covers a huge geographical area. Shaped like an egg, the city can take more than three hours to cross from north to south by car. The search for the elusive hospital paintings was on.
The first task was to find the correct hospital, the hospital with the collection. One of the many difficulties in the search for the "right hospital" was that most Russian hospitals are closed to visitors except during short visiting hours and even then, a visitor must "sign-in" with the name and room number of the patient he or she wishes to visit. Since we had the name of no patients, it followed that we had no reason to go inside the hospital. Alexi's mind, always one step ahead of the Russian bureaucracy, had a solution to the problem.
Alexi's father is one of St. Petersburg's leading ear, nose and throat physicians. Alexi had brought enough white coats for all the search team members. Our team members now mumbled medical jargon as they briskly walked past the uniformed hospital guards. With one exception (where Kirill was nearly forced into assisting in an emergency appendectomy), the white coats worked like a charm in getting us into many hospitals.
Although the gods may have charmed us with good fortune once by allowing the search teams access to the hospitals, the gods brought no such good fortune when it came to finding the "right" hospital. After three days, dozens of visits and plenty of medical mumbling, the entire 15 person hospital search delegation returned to St. Petersburg unsuccessful, weary and a bit depressed.
This would have been the end of the saga had not an unlikely hero emerged, Alexi's mother. In addition to Alexi Zoubach's father's medical practice, his mother is also an M.D. Like other professions that are state managed and non-privatized, Russian medicine had failed to keep up with the competitive times and increasing technology of the West. Alexi's parents, both practicing physicians, make less than $200 per month combined. The funding for Russian health has virtually been frozen since the end of communism. The state simply doesn't have the funds to increase budgets, despite tremendous demand, and the government doesn't have the will or the organizational skills necessary to allow for private medicine. The result is a mess of old, outdated equipment, overcrowding and a lot of tragedy and agony.
Alexi's mother had pushed her son away from a "dead end" career in medicine and toward the Water Transport Institute. She had even pulled some strings to assure his acceptance. At least life at sea would be interesting at times and he would be able to support a family, she often told him. While his mother was somewhat dismayed over her son's move away from the ocean and toward a career as an "art dealer", nonetheless, she worked the phones tirelessly. Using a lot of "chits" in Moscow, on her son's behalf, she was pushing, probing and poking her colleagues in Moscow, trying to find someone who knew something about a great collection of realistic paintings in an old Moscow hospital or clinic. It was this motherly prodding which led to another discovery in the search for the Hospital Collection.
A certain gynecologist that Alexi's mother contacted had seen such an art collection. Did he remember in which hospital these paintings were located? Yes he did! The potential discovery was major news at the Easti office in St. Petersburg. Over the next few hours, the phone lines buzzed between Russia and Salt Lake City.
Alexi and Igor headed directly to the Moscow train station. Eleven hours later the two Russians reported back - masterpieces had been discovered. Very shortly thereafter I was on a plane to Russia.
I had made, prior to leaving, a fleeting reference about the "Hospital Collection" to an American art dealer. I didn't want to say a lot about the collection lest I raise expectations too high over a "collection" I had never seen.
It was now January of 1995. Igor and Alexi met me at the Moscow airport and in the taxi going to the hospital they gave me the details. They also handed me a white medical smock. The garment was a medium size and I wear an extra large. The man guarding the hospital didn't seem to notice my small white coat. I nodded sincerely during Igor and Alexi's animated Russian medical conversation, as we walked nonchalantly past the guard desk.
As excited as the three of us were, it was important that we not betray our emotions. We were "medical people" on a mundane Monday. Too much excitement or even any interest about the paintings might not go unnoticed. The first painting I saw was on the third floor. It was a woman playing a harp. The dirt, dust, poor lighting and even a few spitballs sticking to the canvas couldn't mask the beauty and quality of the work. Up and down the corridors we walked, barely able to contain our enthusiasm. We felt as if we dare not stop and gawk so the inspection had the feeling of a march, up and down, back and forth with strong glancing at the walls as we walked by. To the pajama-clad patients sitting in the hallways, it must have looked like a pack of lions pacing a small cage. It was remarkable to see so many large, great paintings in one place. Igor casually pointed to a large auditorium which was located in the middle of the building between two wings of the hospital. I will never forget what I saw or how I felt as I looked up on the walls of that hospital auditorium. It was a small band of young ballerinas, glowing and exquisitely painted. I reminded me of why I left my secure, lucrative job in Salt Lake City.
Moving to Eastern Europe in 1989 was for me an adventure, a challenge, a quest. It wasn't a financial decision. The intervening years had not disappointed me. Luck and history placed me right in the middle of one of the bubbling volcanoes of the Twentieth century. From Russia on the north to Albania in the Balkans, I witnessed, often from the town square, the fall of Bucharest, Budapest, Prague, Sofia, Warsaw, East Berlin and Russia after generations of communist oppression. I watched initial euphoria and optimism replaced by depression and despair as the economic social and moral hole dug by the totalitarian regime became evident.
I watched the western carpetbaggers come like wolves. Americans, the French, lots of Germans came sitting at the large bars in the Intercontinentals and Sheratons, they saw the dollar signs all across Eastern and Central Europe. The entrepreneurs were followed by a wave of multinationals eager to "get market share" and "expand the trademark". Several times, given my fortunate timing and experience, I was sought out by these money grabbers. Not that I have anything against money, profit or business. I just don't believe I could ever get the same
emotional experience from unloading a train full of Hoover vacuums on Kiev or peddling chicken legs to Minsk that I felt from seeing, for example, Alexi Pavelovich Belykh's "Woodcutters" for the first time.
It was the art that turned me on. No amount of Wrigley's chewing gum signs posted all over St. Petersburg could ever replace the emotion of discovering a masterpiece that had been hidden from the world.
The first time, years earlier, I walked into Alexi Belykh's studio was such an emotional occasion. Igor and I had spent the previous night in Chabucksary. As a foreigner, I was required to obtain a special visa for each city I planned to visit. The procedure required letters of invitation from the artists' union and several government officials. It was a long, cumbersome and for me, impossible requirement. As a result, I was almost always officially a criminal in every city I visited. One of the many problems with being a criminal in the Russian heartland is that it makes it tough to register into hotels. The first step in hotel check-in is a passport, etc. I hadn't the proper stamps. Sometimes a bribe would work; in Chabucksary (about 12 hours by train from Moscow) Igor's attempted bribe was rudely refused and the Stalinist hotel receptionist headed for the police via the phone. We headed briskly for the door. It was about -30C (-10 Fahrenheit-check math) outside. I had spilled some tea on my coat and after being outside for a short time, the zipper and the coat had frozen together. It was cold. Igor and I decided, finally, to visit the only place where we might get some warmth, perhaps even a couple of beds. We began looking for a university but we managed to find only the Institute for Transit Driving. It was a school for bus and truck drivers but, more importantly, it had a dormitory.
Igor bought ten or fifteen bottles of beer, some vodka, a bottle of cognac and a bunch of stiff, dried, unscraped perch fish. We shyly headed past the drunk watchman and into the dormitory. I asked the first student I saw, in English, for a phone. Soon a crowd had gathered to see "the American". We whipped out the booze and the party began.
The students contributed bread, anchovies and a 150 proof poison that they had made themselves. It was like drinking rubbing alcohol-except worse. The students really enjoyed watching me choke on their brew. The youngsters also enjoyed the conspiracy of the whole evening. They were drinking with a foreigner - a fugitive one - one they were hiding. It all added up to one hell of a night - filled with lots of dried uncooked fish (not bad with a lot of beer), more booze than the entire state of Utah consumes in a week and hours of Italian disco music (sung in English) playing as background during an all night marathon conversation with twenty or so eager students. Most of the students were meeting their first American. The food was bad, the booze was very bad, but the conversation was fascinating. Sleep, however, was non-existent. Igor and I, anxious to make our meetings in Kostroma, said goodbye to our friends. We exchanged addresses and, in the best Russian tradition, kissed each new friend on both cheeks as we headed - or rather staggered out of the dorm at six in the morning. We were to be in Kostroma at noon.
The train to Kostroma, however, didn't leave for nine hours and it took six hours to get there. The solution was to hire a taxi for the 300 KM (186 miles) drive. It was the only hope of making our meetings in Kostroma. After some discussion and negotiation, the taxi driver agreed, but we had to pay him in advance and also for his empty return to Chabucksary. We settled on $40. Little did we realize that a Lada could go 200 miles, at double the speed limit, over a road that resembled one giant pothole, without ever using its brakes. But we arrived only 30 minutes late for our first appointment. It was a disappointing meeting.
Following our first meeting we went through a list of eight or nine artists, more disappointments. Igor and I were tempted to head to the train station a little early, to eat, and prepare for the overnight ride to Gorki, but despite our fatigue we decided to give an artist we had missed earlier that day another try. His name was Alexi Pavelovich Belykh. As we made our way up the flight of stairs to Mr. Belykh's studio, I was thinking only of how cold, tired and hungry I was and how I was dreading the upcoming train ride. We had our tickets but the train had no private sleeping compartments. It was like an army barracks with 20 or so people in one train car. Plus, we had the beds by the toilet. The women who sold us the tickets warned us, but it was the only places she had left. So it was going to be another long smelly night - but at least we would be "among the people" Igor teased me.
As I walked into Alexi Belykh's studio I stared at "Young Timer Cutters". The painting was huge, too big to be hung, it was placed on the floor against the wall at one end of the studio. The canvas showed a strong focused man using an electric saw to cut logs. Next to the cutter stood a woman, dressed in a pink blouse, balancing on a large birch log. There were other cutters in the background and the endless Russian forest in the background. The paint was thick and the expressions on the people's faces strong and bold. "Young Timber Cutters" was a masterpiece, but it was only the crowning jewel in a dazzling crown. As I gazed around the room there was a kaleidoscope of other paintings. Some partially hidden behind other paintings, others hanging on the wall. The works were stacked and cluttered like precious jewels in a barnyard. As I took in this breathtaking sight, I was no longer tired, hungry or cold. I was full.
I learned early in my Russian experience to act "unfazed", no matter what, or pay a large price later. Russians are excellent people readers and if they sense you like something, the price goes up. If you like it a lot, the price goes way up. With Belykh I gave up all pretenses. I adored the art. At that moment it wasn't about me as a buyer or as an art dealer. It was about a person who looked at a piece of cloth and was astounded how a fellow human being could mix some paints and brush them on that canvas creating such beauty and emotion in the heart of a stranger. That moment, rare as it was, is the reason I was doing what I was doing. Over the years, that emotion, that feeling happens very rarely, but often enough to get me through many a very cold shower and a very hot train ride.
When I walked into the auditorium in that Moscow hospital, I was again struck the way I had been in Belykh's studio. Alexi and Igor were also speechless. We were looking at a lost masterpiece. "In the Ballet Class of the Cultural House" by Nedezhda Kostantinovna Kornienko was a simple composition, but the piece comes alive with a group of young ballerinas practicing in an old hall. The glowing faces of the little girls filled with expression and enthusiasm. "Ballet Class" was a treasure.
I had stood in line to see the exhibit "Hidden Treasures" at the 'Hermitage. The paintings the Russians had "saved" from Nazi Germany and then hid for 40 years. The world had descended on St. Petersburg, to almost universal raves, critics wrote globally about those hidden treasures. No painting in that "Hidden" collection could compare to the "hidden treasure" we had just uncovered. The world might not understand that now, but we understood.
Tracking down a hidden masterpiece and admiring it in an old hospital lecture hall in Moscow, Russia and getting that painting to downtown Scottsdale, Arizona, USA, are two entirely different matters. Despite months of work, this was a beginning, not an ending. The next step, obviously, was to buy the paintings from the hospital. It might seem like a straight forward matter, but as with many things in Russia, it is never easy. Who to approach, and as important, who not to approach, were the subject of vigorous debate within our staff meetings. If the "wrong" person were alerted, it and a sale was refused, it could preclude the "right" person from ever selling the works. Or if word got out that a foreign company was interested in the paintings, the price could be raised beyond all reason. Perhaps hospital workers would sense the value of the works and steal them before we could buy them or maybe a hospital administrator could call a Moscow art dealer friend and work out a "deal" for the paintings. Everything had to be considered. The back and forth arguments rallied for almost one month. Finally I decided on a plan.
Below the highest administrative levels of Russian hospitals, each institution has a person responsible for property. He or she buys, sells, trades, throws away or repairs anything in need. We decided that a casual visit would be paid to this person. Since I was in Russia, I decided to go along with Alexi.
Even a rather casual encounter with this mid-level bureaucrat wasn't easy. Without "connections" it would have been impossible. In Russia, there are no phone books, no hospital directories, not even organizational charts. Add to this a historic Russian suspicion and reluctance to give out any information to strangers, and you begin to realize the problem with finding, contacting and arranging a meeting with even a mid-level bureaucrat.
Alexi and I having finally secured a meeting, were hoping for a young, non-Soviet, "new business" Russian. A person who knew how to do business. After all, the deal, on the face of it, had a lot of appeal. A Russian hospital with serious financial problems trading some obviously not well appreciated paintings for equipment, medication or cash. What could be easier?
As Alexi and I were ushered into the administrator's office, our biggest nightmare unfolded. Standing before us was a prototype Soviet bureaucrat. A stern-faced seventyish man greeted his American visitor with a grunt. Even more alarming than his grim manner was the huge portrait of Lenin on the wall above his shelf. The unsmiling Lenin was looking down on the foot-high plaster statute of Lenin on his desk. This was exactly the kind of man with whom we could not do business. This was the type of man who blamed America for everything bad in Russia, from the demise of the Soviet Union to the increased price on the Metro. This was the kind of man who could kill the deal forever.
He might as well have said, "Better the paintings burn than the capitalists get them, whatever the price."
I opened my mouth and told Alexi to translate exactly what I said.
"It is a pleasure to meet the director of the hospital laundry," I said.
He looked puzzled.
I continued, "Our American company used a certain Moscow woman, Olga, to wash our clothes whenever we were in the capitol city. Olga had done a great job. She maybe the best laundry person we had ever seen. Our company was coming to Moscow less often and Olga had little work so we agreed to help her get a full time job. Would he hire her?"
A moment or two following the translation the hospital administrator looked at me with disdain and replied, "I am not responsible for laundry."
Cutting him off I said, "Kindly forgive our intrusion."
A very quick exit followed a befuddled handshake.
Strike one. Organizationally in a Russian hospital (one doing business in the old Soviet Union became knowledgeable in many areas), the director and vice-director are both M.D.s. They act as administrators, however, they do not see patients. The vice-director is usually the hands-on administrator running the day-to-day operations with the chief often unavailable. The director is busy. Thinking of long term concern I decided we had to take a chance with the vice-director. Perhaps if we could arrange a meeting, we might be able to convince this person that a new X-ray machine, twentieth century anesthesiology equipment or cash was worth the price of a few paintings. The hospital was, after all, chronically short of medicine, the paint was peeling off the walls and the beds were refugees from World War II.
Following the usual hassle of finding and contacting the right person, a meeting was arranged. The vice-director was a no-show. After three more days of "too busy", Alexi and I were finally granted an audience. The man, Victor, was fortyish, spoke English and even had a University of Kentucky textbook on his desk. All very good signs. Victor mentioned he had just returned from a visit and conference in Boston. Bingo. This was a man with whom we might be able to do business. For the next few minutes Alexi translated to Victor bluntly what we wanted. Victor, of course, had seen the paintings and said while a sale or trade was possible it would be very difficult. It would require a lot of strings to be pulled. I looked into Victor's eyes to see if he really needed to pull difficult strings or if he was jockeying for a better deal. I couldn't tell.
Alexi told Victor that we would be very grateful for his help and that we realized he was a busy man. Alexi said that we would expect to pay something for his time in our behalf.
Victor said he needed the answer to two questions before he could decide on selling the paintings. First, exactly which painting were we interested in and second, he must find out who legally owned the paintings and who, therefore, could sell them. Alexi said we would be back in an hour with a list of paintings in which we had an interest. Victor said it would take him a couple of days to get the ownership information. It took Victor four and a half infuriating months to get that information.
Two months after our meeting with Victor I was in Moscow. Victor was unavailable. I wanted to check on the paintings, so we headed to the hospital. Among the paintings Alexi had named that we were interested in was a knock-out 1950s Nikolai Baskakov. The painting depicts a grandmother seated at a kitchen table. Her large black eyes and high Russian cheekbones conveying an air of dignity and warmth as she sits knitting. Also sitting at the table is her 12 or 13 year old granddaughter. A petite girl with a large red bow, she watches her grandmother, a twinkle in her eye and a small grin on her face. The details of the work are extremely well executed. A samovar at the corner of the table, fresh flowers and everything in front of an open window. The curtains blowing slightly in the breeze. It was a marvelous painting.
As Alexi and I bounded the stairs to the third floor, a deep gasp hit my stomach. The Baskakov was not in its usual spot. We doubled our pace only to find the large Kornienko ballerina painting and two other works missing also. Panic, anger and then depression swept over me. I was a soldier without a weapon; how could I buy paintings that were missing. There was nothing I could do. Bringing the issue of the sale of the paintings to the administration had always been a gamble, but short of stealing the paintings, how could we ever get the works without the cooperation of the hospital? Had we been betrayed? Dozens of art dealers, foreign and Russian, would pay a Czar's ransom for the Hospital Collection. Had Victor betrayed us? Is that why we had waited two months and he still refused to meet us or even talk to us?
Alexi's usual jovial attitude had turned ashen and serious. The phantom "Hospital Project", was the subject of some ridicule and derision by the other Russian employees (Question: "What's taking as long to finish as building St. Isaac's Cathedral?" Answer: "Igor and Alexi's hospital paintings."). The collection was Alexi's and Igor's project and if the paintings were lost, it was not only their bonus at stake but their credibility. I had frequently pushed them on the paintings but deferred when they responded by explaining that these things take time and pressuring the hospital officials would be counterproductive. It was a grim time for Igor and Alexi. That night on the phone in Moscow, the American art dealer asked me about the hospital paintings. I said that everything was coming along. That evening Igor, Alexi and I enjoyed some Russian tonic - Stoley.
"First," he said, with his right index finger touching his left hand index finger, "just as I suspected, the hospital does not own the paintings."
Our hearts sank. But Victor explained that he thought he could help us obtain the paintings. Alexi said we would be grateful for his help. Victor asked how grateful. I responded that would depend on whether our gratitude would land the paintings directly in our hands or whether we were grateful for only the name and number of the person who owned the paintings.
Victor said his involvement would be limited to a name. Victor, Alexi, Igor and I agreed on a level of gratitude. A name was given. As our small delegation was leaving the hospital administrator's office, almost as an aside, I mentioned that some paintings seemed to be missing and asked if he knew of their whereabouts. Victor explained that perhaps the paintings were being rearranged or cleaned.
"It happens," he said.
Victor looked unperturbed by our notice of the missing works. Indeed, he seemed to be unaware that the works were gone. He was either a smooth liar or he didn't know the pieces were missing.
The exhilaration of finally having the name of the owner of the paintings was outweighed by concern that some of the collection was missing. As the three of us walked silently down the marble steps of the hospital, I shrugged and pulled my collar closer to my neck, trying to provide some protection from the cold Moscow chill.
The next day, after Alexi paid his gratitude to Victor, the search for the owner of the paintings began. The owner was a prominent eye doctor, an ophthalmologist. He was a professor. An elderly physician now, in the 1950s and 1960s he had a special relationship with Moscow's Art Union. He was the Union's unofficial liaison with the medical community. The doctor not only provided treatment for eye problems, but treated the artist's other common ailments. He assured them and their families of prompt treatment, difficult to obtain medication and the services of medical specialists when needed. Although not particularly an art lover, he graciously accepted gifts both from the Union as well as from individual artists. Over many years the doctor amassed an impressive collection of thank you gifts from a grateful community of artists. He sometimes joked that it would have been better to have been a special liaison to a vodka factory than for the Art Union. Of course it was impractical to take his art gifts home as he lived in a tiny, overcrowded three room apartment. So over the years, as the doctor collected works, he had them placed in the corridors of the hospital.
Over the next two and a half months, Igor and Alexi made several quick trips to Moscow in search of the elusive doctor/professor who owned the "Hospital Collection." Without my knowledge, Igor had decided that in order to keep expenses down, everyone going to Moscow was not permitted to stay overnight and they should pack food into pails for the trip. Given the fact that the professor's hospital and university phones had gone unanswered for weeks and given no overnight stays in Moscow, the staff was never able to make a connection. No one at the hospital ever knew where the doctor was, what he was doing or when he would be back. Alexi thought it improper to leave a note. A face-to-face meeting was required for so delicate a discussion about the sale of his collection.
The report for office expenses for April, May and June were reported under budget with glee. Meanwhile, U.S. News and World Report, in June of 1995 reported Moscow to be the world's second most expensive city. Igor and Alexi were doing their part to keep a lid on expenses, but they reported no progress in obtaining the hospital paintings. On the positive side, staff visits to the hospital showed that all paintings except the Nikolai Baskakov had returned to their place and none seemed the worse for wear.
Meanwhile back in the U.S., I was pleased that budgets were met, but I would have been frantic had I known that the price to be paid for adhering to the budget was that a meeting with the man who owned the holy grail was continually postponed.
In June of 1995 I returned to Russia. After hearing the cause of the delay in having a meeting with the owner of the hospital paintings, I went ballistic. I told Igor and Alexi to throw away the budget and arrange a meeting with the doctor. Forget the expenses and stay in Moscow as long as necessary to get the art work. On that quick trip many things were on the agenda. Having given instructions on the hospital paintings, I quickly passed on to other issues.
Every week I received a report by fax from Russia. In August I was in Salt Lake City when I received the latest fax. It had a small report on the hospital paintings. It was another excuse for no meeting with the eye doctor. He was at the dacha, he was in Yalta for three weeks, the professor was in Minsk teaching, was he in Yalta or Minsk? We still had never spoken to him. We had no phone number that he ever answered and only two office addresses which, apparently, he never used. The excuses seemed to go on and on. Perhaps Igor and Alexi were hesitant to get a final yes or no answer from the doctor. As long as things were up in the air there was still hope. Maybe Igor and Alexi were afraid of failure. This was their first opportunity to do a significant deal and if the doctor said Nyet, maybe they would be on the Siberian search committee. Whatever the reason, for two months no meeting had been arranged with the doctor. This had to end.
I was angry. Red-faced angry. In June when I had returned from Russia, I had left it to Igor and Alexi to use their "Russian" methods to get the paintings.
"Be patient, be calm," they had said. "Let us handle things."
After six weeks I was tired of the cool and calm approach. I picked up the phone and in, for me, very harsh language, I told Igor and Alexi to get on the next train to Moscow and move in to the doctor's University office and hospital operating room and stay there until they met the doctor. I said I didn't care if it took a month. They were not to leave Moscow without an answer from the doctor. I told them to get me a "yes" or "no" answer. I said at this point I didn't even care what the answer was - I just wanted an answer and to put an end to the endless waiting. I also demanded that they call me every day without fail.
My clear message struck home as Igor and Alexi were on the 11:57 night train to Moscow. Upon arrival Alexi headed to the hospital. He paid a "gratuity" of $23.84 a day, plus a bottle of vodka, and checked himself into the hospital. His bed was right across the hall from the Doctor's office. Igor went from the Moscow train station to the doctor's University office. Igor set up camp in the hallway. He left only to perform necessary bodily functions. Igor ate and slept in the corridor, paying a night watchman a "gratuity" for the privilege.
After 72 hours Alexi was rewarded by an appearance by the elusive doctor. The doctor, shuffling into his office, his hands full of papers, his shaggy hair totally unkempt, said he had no time to talk with a patient (Alexi was in his pajamas). Alexi, nearing desperation, said he needed a consultation for just five minutes. Alexi said he realized that the doctor's time was valuable, but perhaps for $200 U.S. Dollars the doctor could spare the minutes. The Professor smiled and said for that rate, perhaps he could spare an hour. Alexi smiled - a good start.
Alexi got right to the point. The doctor said that while he and the hospital put a great value on the art, given the dire circumstances of the facility, perhaps he would be inclined to trade the works for some medical goods. Alexi's spirit soared. But, on the other hand, the doctor added it would be unprofessional to sell his paintings.
"I'm a doctor, a professor," he said. "I am not a businessman," he said in a very contemptuous way. "I am not a capitalist. I am not up for auction to whomever can pay the highest price. What would my colleagues, the administration, even my own conscience say if I sold our beautiful paintings, to foreigners, no less."
Alexi felt the doctor slipping away. He seemed to be building momentum. His voice got stronger.
"Sorry, any sale would be impossible. And, young man, please keep your $200," the Doctor said.
Alexi saw that at that moment any further discussion would be damaging. Alexi smiled, thanked the doctor and turned to walk out of the office. He left the money on the doctor's desk. Alexi was pleased that the doctor didn't call him back to pick up the money. There was hope. Alexi headed to the University.
Igor, like a faithful but dirty puppy, stayed at his duty station. Alexi left the hospital and gave Igor the news. Igor tried not to be discouraged, after all, at least they did have an answer. It was just the wrong answer. Igor was hungry, cold and ready for a hot shower. He suggested to Alexi that they not call me until they had time to think. Alexi agreed. They headed to the Izmylava Hotel. To add insult to injury, the hot water was out for the month.
Igor said the solution dawned on him the next morning at breakfast. As Alexi was rehashing the doctor's response for the tenth time, Igor pulled his chair back from the table, held his fist in the air and yelled "Yes, yes, yes."
The people in the day room stared. Igor didn't care about the stranger's glances; he had thought of a way to get the hospital paintings. If the doctor liked the idea in principal, of selling or trading the paintings, but didn't want to look greedy or unprofessional to his colleagues, then all Igor and Alexi had to do was to convince him to sell us the paintings, but also keep the works in the hospital. Igor would propose to the doctor that he sell his paintings one by one. As one painting was purchased, it would be copied by a master artist. Following the painting of a copy, the original would go to America and the variant would be placed back in the hospital. The only difference being that the new painting would be cleaner and brighter. No one in the hospital would be the wiser and the professor would be significantly richer. It was a very Russian solution. Alexi thought it might just work.
A meeting was arranged with the doctor. The idea was proposed. The Doctor cautiously agreed. He said that he wanted to do the copies one by one rather than leave all the hospital walls bare. The original paintings would be removed, a price negotiated and then copied. Then the copy would replace the original. The Doctor wanted to sell the paintings to us one at a time. He reasoned that if he didn't like the first copy he could call off the agreement. The young Russian art dealers quickly agreed.
Igor and Alexi called me. A huge smile broke out on both sides of the Atlantic. I reminded my young friends that a lot of work remained to be done before the young ballerinas painting became the talk of the art world.
The next task was to find the copy artist. It would not be easy to find such an artist. In addition to a high skill level (the doctor would accept nothing less than exact copying), the copy artist also had to be both available and fast. Using a Moscow gallery, a "variant specialist" was found and an agreement on terms reached. The gallery demanded a 25% commission for the copy artist's work. A quick call to the U.S. and I agreed to the terms of the deal.
The first painting to be copied was "The Harpist." The copy artist turned out to be a brilliant craftsman. The choice of a gallery, however, was most unfortunate. That decision would end up costing a bundle. The gallery pressured "their" copy artist to reveal the source of the original painting. The gallery director then introduced himself to the Doctor who owned the paintings and offered to pay more than double the money that Igor and Alexi had offered for the remaining paintings. Since officially the doctor had agreed to sell only "The Harpist", it put Igor and Alexi in the position of either paying a lot more money or losing the paintings. They called me and we agreed to stay in close touch during their negotiations with the doctor. We eventually topped the gallery bid.
By now my American art dealer was regularly asking about the hospital pieces, and rightly so. He wanted to know how many, how much, sizes, photographs, artist's biographies, etc.. The truth was we had only touched one canvas, "The Harpist". The rest remained frustratingly on hospital walls - not subject to scrutiny or measurement. We still did not want to arouse much suspicion in the hospital.
As I mumbled evasive answers to his most basic questions, he asked, for example, "Jim, how many paintings are we talking about?"
I couldn't answer directly because I didn't know.
He never pressed me. I think he understands Russia and realizes that sometimes even the simplest questions are tough to answer.
Igor and Alexi, despite my warnings, decided to keep the original copy artist, they even promised him the gallery's 25% commission if he finished the work on time. He also agreed to tell no one else about the project.
The logistics over the next several months got complicated. A person from our staff would go to Moscow, pay the doctor, take the next hospital original to the copy artist and take the just copied original from the copy artist to St. Petersburg. Every step of this process required hiring a hard to find, very expensive taxi truck to transport these very large paintings on stretcher bars. Our people were concerned on every move, not only about the good care of the art work but also because the drivers of these truck taxis often worked with and/or for the mafia. When a valuable load of cargo was being transported, the drivers sometimes radioed the destination to "undesirables." The rented truck would be met at the destination by a "welcoming committee" of goons. The transported goods, with the taxi clients watching, would then be quietly loaded into another truck taxi. To the taxi customer facing a group of thugs, any resistance results not only in loss of property, but a good chance of serious bodily injury. Using the truck taxi was an absolute necessity as the paintings were large and could be transported no other way.
Finally, all the agreed upon paintings were copied and hung in the hospital with the originals gathered in St. Petersburg. The next hurdle was the Russian State Cultural Commission for Export of Art. There are three such commissions in Russia. The gaggle of women on the St. Petersburg commission are simply impossible. At their meetings every Tuesday and Thursday they see several dozen supplicants. People wait hours in the dingy hallway for their moment before a three member inquisition. Countless tourists are disappointed to find that in order to export any piece of "art" from Russia, four different pieces of notarized paper are required. For example, a guarantee that proper tax (100% of value) has been paid is one form, another is a document from the artist giving his or her consent for their "creation" to be taken abroad. The quality or age of the work makes no difference. From the most commercial piece of "Dogs Playing Poker" on velvet to caricature sketches made by street artists, each piece is systematically refused export documents if the bewildered exporter doesn't have all the right papers with all the right seals, stamps and signatures by the artist. The joke in St. Petersburg is that the last painting that was exported from the city was exported by Rapin, who died in 1930. We knew that any attempt to use the St. Petersburg commission was folly.
The commission in Moscow is tough but reasonable. We still needed all the forms, but the Moscow commission recognizes that there is a difference between a charcoal, portrait street painter and the great Russian painter Alvazovski. The group also usually waive the artist's consent form if you present a Bill of Sale. The Moscow Commission, of course, had to see the paintings in person. That meant transporting all the works back to Moscow by overnight train. Then by truck taxi we had to take the paintings to the commission office. Wait for approvals then re-load and head back to St. Petersburg by train, and then finally a taxi truck back to the St. Petersburg storage place.
While it is legal to export all paintings created after World War II with proper documents, the commission is given authority to prohibit the export a painting created after the war, even if it is a national treasure. The Moscow Commission said no to the export of the ballerina paintings.
"This is a treasure to the cultural heritage of Russia and it is impossible to export. Next case," they said.
Igor and Alexi crawled out into the hallway defeated. Without the two ballerinas paintings, there was no Hospital Collection. They decided to wait until the end of the day and make a final appeal to the commission. They spent the next three and a half hours in the poorly lit hallway standing alongside their seven huge treasures. Protecting the paintings from passing drunks, gawkers and the truly admiring was nerve wrecking.
Finally at the end of the day a 30 second final appeal was denied. The waiting truck was filled with the collection, minus a most important piece of paper, and taken to the train station for the long, sober trip back to St. Petersburg.
The Russians didn't call America that day. They did call the art dealer in Moscow who had tried to undercut them for the hospital paintings. The dealer was known to have "good connections" to the Commission. Igor asked the gallery director if he would appeal on their
behalf. The dealer said he felt sorry for them and he would make a few calls, but of course he would have to be compensated for his time. Readily our young men agreed.
The dealer, despite his connections, had a tough time. The Commission had already made a decision on the ballerina painting - what could possibly remove that classic treasure from the category of "Treasure of Russia"?
After some negotiation, a deal was made. If Igor and Alexi could get a signed permission from the artist, they could export the painting. But Nedezhda Konstantinovna Kornienko was born in 1919. If she was even still alive, how could we find her. Even if we did find her, would she sign such a paper?
The search was on. Two "search teams" plus Igor and Alexi headed to Moscow. After a couple of days of bad leads, finally a confirmation that she was alive, then a phone number. Then an appointment. She wasn't home or didn't answer the door at the appointed time. Knocking on all the surrounding neighbors' doors, Igor found out that she had a granddaughter in an adjacent building. Calls were made.
Natashia, the 25 year old granddaughter of the aged artist came to her babushka's apartment and opened the door. Natashia said she would be happy to help us with her grandmother. Another meeting was arranged. Igor and Natashia knocked on Nedezhda's door.
At the door, through a chain, Nedezhda Konstantinovna Kornienko said she was resting and besides she had decided not to permit her work to leave Russia. Igor suggested tea. Kornienko suggested Igor leave. The granddaughter said she would speak to her grandmother later, but that Igor should leave.
After a sleepless night, Igor and Alexi headed back to Nedezhda's apartment. Natashia said that she had persuaded her grandmother to see the "dealers" again, but that she, the granddaughter, would like some remuneration for her help. Natashia was an artist and perhaps we would be interested in a few of her works. Alexi quickly agreed and bought three pieces. The granddaughter then ushered Igor and Alexi to her grandmother's apartment.
The conversation began about the ballerinas painting. More than a conversation, it was a monologue by Nedezhda. But as she spoke, the two young art dealers from St. Petersburg forgot their mission - a signature - and got caught up in this remarkable woman's life. For almost two hours she spoke and the three listened. Igor said he had never heard such stories. She spoke of her early education, Stalin's art orders, death camps, the Great Patriotic War. Nedezhda Konstantinovna Kornienko had lived a remarkable life.
At the end of her "discussion", Kornienko said to her granddaughter, "They seem like fine young men. Prepare the documents."
She signed the required documents. In the tram on the way back to the Peking Hotel, Alexi cried.
On April 1, 1996 at 3:34 p.m. the Hospital Collection, having passed Russian cultural customs, lifted off the ground at the St. Petersburg airport finally on their way to America.
In August of 2000, Southwest Art Magazine reported Korneinko's "Ballet Class" sold for one million one hundred thousand dollars, a new record for Russian impression.