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From the Editors: Excess in Exile

<< Back to Robb Report, December 2008

In the spring of 1919, the British battleship HMS Marlborough departed the Crimean coast with a curious cargo of 85 passengers, representing the remnants of the 300-year-old Romanov dynasty. These dignitaries had fled St. Petersburg two years earlier, following Nicholas II’s abdication in favor of a provisional government; however, with the collapse of the latter and the rise to power of the Bolsheviks, the more prudent among the Romanovs deemed it expedient to depart Mother Russia. Most did so reluctantly and without the due haste that their precarious situation might seem to have warranted. The British ship patiently waited while, on the private beach of the Youssoupov estate at Koreiz, workers constructed a makeshift pier to accommodate the Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna, who did not wish to be seen fleeing at the port of Yalta. Her entourage of grand dukes and duchesses took advantage of the additional time to pack valuables into enormous steamer trunks, which were hauled aboard. One of these—the property of the assassin of Grigori Rasputin, Prince Felix Youssoupov, and his wife, Princess Irina, the czar’s niece (pictured)—contained the small statuette of Venus carved from solid blue sapphire that is offered in this year’s Ultimate Gift Guide (see "Good Goddess," page 160).

The Venus, however, was not the only precious object that Youssoupov had managed to liberate. The sole surviving son of Russia’s wealthiest family, the young prince had secreted away a large quantity of important jewelry, including a black-pearl necklace that had once belonged to Catherine the Great and Marie-Antoinette’s 34.59-carat diamond pendant earrings. Also aboard the British ship were two Rembrandts, Portrait of a Lady with an Ostrich-Feather Fan and Portrait of a Man in a Tall Hat—favorite canvases that, at the last minute, Youssoupov had cut from their frames. The remainder of his vast collection (works by Tiepolo, Rubens, van Dyck, and Velázquez, among others) was seized by the Soviets and now fills the better part of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg.

With these treasures in tow, Youssoupov and Irina seemed to have a more certain future than did their fellow passengers. While other expatriate Russian nobles made their humiliating retreats from the best hotels to increasingly humbler lodgings, the prince would continue to entertain (first in London and then in Paris) on a lavish scale. But the salvaged fortune did not go far in the hands of an individual rigorously educated not to think about money except to spend it. Grand Duchess Marie Pavlovna, in describing her own struggle in her memoir, A Princess in Exile, summed up the dilemma of most of her contemporaries: "Never before had I carried money or written out a check. My bills were always paid by someone else. . . . In practical matters I was a child and had to learn everything from the beginning. . . ."

Youssoupov was a quick learner in some respects, slow in others. Noting that Pierre Cartier had purchased a significant number of Youssoupov pieces auctioned off by the Soviet government in Berlin, the prince established a relationship with the jeweler, who sold Marie-Antoinette’s earrings (now in the Smithsonian Institution) to cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post for an undisclosed amount, and Catherine the Great’s pearls to a New York society matron for $400,000. With these proceeds, Youssoupov and Irina invested in a variety of different enterprises, including their own fashion house, Irfe, and a restaurant, La Maisonette.

Rather than replenish the Youssoupov coffers, these ventures drained them further, and the prince, out of necessity, engaged in negotiations with American collector Joseph Widener for the sale of his beloved Rembrandts. The deal struck illustrates the painful naïveté to which Pavlovna had alluded. Youssoupov sold the paintings for $400,000, but retained the right to repurchase them, with interest, within a period of a few years; however, after turning over the Rembrandts in exchange for an advance, which he quickly spent, Youssoupov received a second contract from Widener’s attorneys that prevented the prince, should he buy back the artworks, from reselling them for 10 years. Because he could not return the advance, Youssoupov had no choice but to sign. When, in 1924, he attempted to buy back the pictures with borrowed money, Widener refused him, and a lengthy legal battle ensued. The U.S. courts ultimately ruled that the prince could only regain his property using his own money. What the Marxists had not taken by violence, the capitalist appropriated on a technicality. The Rembrandts now hang in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

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