Art for art's sake: oligarch rescues cellist's rare collection

A Russian billionaire has stepped in to stop the Rostropovich art collection from being split up. Alisher Usmanov bought the Russian masterpieces hours before they were due to go under the hammer in London. He now says he'll bring the collection back to

It's the first time in decades Sotheby's has called off a sale just two days before it was due to take place.

The Head of the auction house's Russia department said she was surprised by the turn of events: “I think, it’s a historic moment. We’ve never cancelled a sale two days before. It’s a fantastic moment for Russia that this collection is to be returned in its entirety to Russia and that was the wish of the buyer who is Mr Usmanov,” she said

The collection includes paintings, porcelain figures, plates and vases, acquired over 30 years to decorate the homes of cellist and composer Mstislav Rostropovich and his wife, the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya.

Alisher Usmanov
Alisher Usmanov


They started putting their collection together after they left the Soviet Union in 1974, focusing on pre-revolutionary Russian art from the 18th,19th and 20th centuries. Piece by piece they were trying to re-create the atmosphere of imperial Russia in their Western homes.

Russia’s 18th richest man Alisher Usmanov recently made the headlines in Britain for buying a 14.5% stake in Arsenal football club.  Now the metals and mining mogul has paid more than $U.S.40mln dollars to bring this unique collection back home.

“When I learned that the collection was to be sold at the auction I felt I should try to preserve its integrity, to keep all those unique works of art together. But what is more important is to have it returned to the country where it belongs. I plan to donate the collection to the state. I think the experts will decide on that and I will by all means listen to them,” said Alisher Usmanov . 

The surprise purchase shocked the art world, leaving some collectors disappointed.

“Obviously, Russians have enormous wealth, and they want to show it.  But also, the tradition of collecting is quite strong in Russia ,” said collector James Butterwick.

Galina Vishevskaya once said that she hoped these works would be acquired by people who love and appreciate them. It seems her wish has been fulfilled.

The unique Rostropovich collection is itself a masterpiece, in its variety and completeness. And after many years of travelling the world, it will finally return to its homeland.