Ex-Sotheby’s auctioneer who sold Cambridge Five spy ring library on life behind the Iron Curtain
17:56 07 February 2013
Former Sotheby’s director and auctioneer, Peter Batkin, talks to Rachael Getzels about his work as a Russian specialist from 1988 to 2000, when he saw the collapse of the USSR and unearthed one of the biggest art mysteries of the 20th century.
It was 9pm in Pushkin Square, central Moscow, and guards stamped their heavy black boots into the snow to keep warm.
Passers-by in bleak brown coats and fur hats trundled through the traffic, shielding their faces from the chill, and Peter Batkin waited for the tap on his shoulder.
He didn’t know who he was meeting, but he knew they would recognise him.
The year was 1990 and the Sotheby’s art dealer had been approached days before, via an unsigned fax, to help sell the library of Kim Philby, one of the notorious Cambridge Five, a ring of spies who were revealed to be double agents in the 1950s.
That meeting was the beginning of a two-year negotiation between Sotheby’s and Russia’s secret police, the KGB, about bringing the library back to England.
“I was taken to Kim Philby’s home and there were all his notes and lectures to the KGB. It was extraordinary,” says Mr Batkin, who was a well-known and well-connected art expert in Russia.
“Some people were outraged that we would sell his library – the man was a traitor. But my role is to preserve history, not see it destroyed. So that was it.
“When I came back to England it led to me being involved with our security services, and well, one thing led to another.”
The 59-year-old who is a member of Belsize Square Synagogue and whose family lived in Hampstead says little else about his job in Russia. Just that he had to sign the Official Secrets Act because he was “doing other things too.”
When Mr Batkin was sent to Moscow by Sotheby’s in 1988, the city was dingy and grey, still in the clutches of a murky Soviet past. He had been tasked with setting up the first auction the country had held since the 1930s – a sale of modern Russian art.
It turned into a raucous affair, with a stampede at the gates, so big that the KGB was forced to throw open the doors and let the public stream through.
On his first night in the city, Mr Batkin and his three business partners left their ‘‘grotty’’ hotel to eat whatever meal was on offer at one of the state restaurants.
“Before we went out I stood in my room moaning about it’s condition,” said the former senior director for Russian markets at Sotheby’s, who started work there as a porter in 1973.
“It had one small rectangular window but the curtain only covered half of it. When we came back from dinner, we all had new curtains in our rooms. Clearly someone was listening to us!
“But we took advantage of it.
“When I had a tough day negotiating contracts with the Soviet government, I would stand in the middle of the room where I had worked out they probably had the bug, and would gesture up at the ceiling saying, ‘And another thing…’
“Well, we got the contract.”
Requests for Mr Batkin’s expertise flooded in soon after the successful auction.
By the early 1990s, he had tracked down a collection of art that had vanished at the end of the Second World War, by painters such as Renoir, Degas, and Manet – now worth more then $1billion.
“I was asked by a German family, who had reason to believe that their collection was in Russia, if I could find their missing art,” Mr Batkin explained.
“I had an agreement with Sotheby’s that if I discovered any Nazi links, I would not deal with them. That was essential for me.”
Armed with pre-war black and white photos from the catalogue, he schmoozed museum directors and was quickly told by an Englisman who worked for the Russian secret service to stop looking.
“I knew something was in it then,” said Mr Batkin.
“He said, ‘If you don’t stop looking, you’re going to have a problem at the airport’. Well, I like a challenge.”
The magnificent finds, which had been hidden deep in a basement vault for more than 40 years, were later discovered to be some of more than three million works taken by the Russians from Germany after the war.
The resulting exhibition, Russia’s Hidden Treasures Revealed, at the state Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, put the city on the cultural map but also sparked a diplomatic row.
Some of the finds were auctioned off by Sotheby’s and Mr Batkin recalls knocking on the door of a modest bungalow in the suburbs of Berlin and telling the unassuming pianist who lived inside he was to inherit $35million.
Mr Batkin, who now lives in Wembley with his wife, went on to become an advisor to the Kremlin and is one of only a handful of people to have seen the Soviet bloc dissolve from the inside.
He continues to advise governments on how to secure treasures, and today, when major artwork is stolen he is the first port of call.
“It’s about being in the right place, at the right time,” said Mr Batkin. For him that was 9pm in a cold square in Moscow as he waited for a stranger to tap on him on the shoulder and lead him to the home of a notorious spy. Some would call it danger. Mr Batkin calls it luck.
Mr Batkin is currently advising Hampstead Auctions in Heath Street on their monthly sales, specialising in valuable silver.