The private art collection of the late cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and his soprano wife Galina Vishnevskaya has been sold for more than £20m to a Russian oligarch who plans to bring the works to Russia.
Alisher Usmanov, who bought a 14.58 per cent stake in Arsenal Football Club for £75m last month, made a bid for the collection of about 450 works over the weekend. The final sum he paid for the works – which had been due to go on sale at Sotheby's today and tomorrow – was described as " substantially higher" than the highest pre-sale expectation of £20m.
In a letter, Mikhail Shvydkoi, the head of the Russian Federal Agency of Culture and Cinematography (Roskultura), expressed his gratitude to Mr Usmanov for bringing the collection to Russia in its entirety. "For Russian culture and Russia as a whole, all things relating to the name of Mstislav Rostropovich are invaluable," he said.
There was considerable pre-sale interest in the collection, but Mr Usmanov only emerged as a potential buyer over the weekend and by Monday morning, the deal was signed. Rated the 18th-richest man in Russia, Mr Usmanov made his money in metals and mining.
The sale is surrounded by ironies. Rostropovich and his wife were stripped of their Russian citizenship in 1974 after he was thrown out for harbouring the dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Following a whirlwind love affair – they met and married in the space of four days – Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya set about building up an art collection which recreated Russia in exile.
The decision to sell the works was a joint one, made before his death. Yesterday, Vishnevskaya's family said: "We are delighted that the collection is being acquired in its entirety. It is especially meaningful for our family that the new owner will bring it to Russia."
One item in the collection, Boris Grigoriev's Faces of Russia, is considered the most important painting to emerge from Russia since the Communist revolution and, if it had been sold at auction, was expected to fetch between £1.5m and £2m. Painted in 1921, the artist loved the piece so much he refused to part with it in his lifetime and had it mounted on to a folding five-panelled screen so that it could be exhibited around Western Europe and America.
Another important work acquired by the couple was First Steps by Alexei Venetsianov, dated 1839. Venetsianov was one of the first Russian artists to paint peasant scenes, helping to establish a Russian school of painting. The piece was estimated at between £500,000 and £1m. The collection also includes 22 works by Ilya Repin , including a portrait of the poet Alexander Pushkin dated 1913 and a famous seated nude against a blue background painted in 1925.
Given the couple's professional background, it is unsurprising that the collection also included many theatrical pieces, including set and costume designs. Other items include intricately painted porcelain plates, cups and teapots and boxes carved from walrus ivory from northern Russia.
Jo Vickery, the head of Sotheby's Russian department, said that to have a collection compiled by two famous musicians was "quite unique". She added: "There is Andrew Lloyd-Webber's collection of pre-Raphaelite art, but you don't see it very often."
Writing in the introduction to the catalogue for the Sotheby's sale, Vishnevskaya said of her husband: "Our tastes coincided exactly and this collection is made up of everything we loved. We took the decision to sell it together. We wanted all the valuables we had collected lovingly over many years to go to true connoisseurs and lovers of Russian art."