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Hermitage Tries a Western Idea to Cash In on Exhibition : Art: Expecting high foreign attendance at 'Treasures,' museum plans sales reminiscent of special patron benefits.

March 31, 1995|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT and CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — Hoping to capitalize on expectations of high foreign attendance to its newly opened, widely publicized exhibition of 74 French paintings stolen from Germany at the end of World War II, St. Petersburg's cash-strapped State Hermitage Museum has initiated a small-scale fund-raising gimmick unusual for the venerable institution.

Five thousand tickets, their printing costs underwritten by Coca-Cola of St. Petersburg, will allow their bearers extended morning and evening viewing hours to avoid crowds, no waiting lines for use of the obligatory cloakrooms and two free Cokes at the Hermitage cafe. The plan is reminiscent of special patron benefits common in the West that are largely unheard of in Russia.

Foreign visitors will pay about $15, more than twice the usual admission price; tickets are available at the city's fanciest hotels, as well as at the museum. Like most Russian attractions, the Hermitage already has a two-tiered admission scale--entry cost for Russian citizens is about 20 cents.

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The Hermitage hopes to raise $75,000 during the run of "Hidden Treasures Revealed" to defray costs of architectural renderings and engineering blueprints for a proposed reorientation of its entrance. The museum began in 1764 as a private gallery attached to Catherine the Great's apartments in the Winter Palace. Currently, visitors enter through unimposing doors at the rear of the grand museum, on the side facing the blustery Neva River.

If all goes as planned, future visitors would enter from the direction the czarist aristocracy once did. The Hermitage faces Palace Square, a stunning ensemble of Russian Baroque and Neo-Classical buildings surrounding the Alexander Column that rises nearly 100 feet in the center of a vast plaza. It was in Palace Square that all-night vigils were held during the dangerous days of the attempted coup against the budding post-Soviet democracy in August, 1991. Plans also call for the creation of a garden with fountains and cafes in the lovely courtyard behind the entry gates.

In other developments, Russia's Moscow-based upper house of Parliament, the Federation Council, drafted legislation last week that would declare most of the art plundered from Germany at the end of World War II to be Russian property in compensation for the vast damage inflicted on this country by the Nazi invasion.

The council's committee on science, culture and education estimated the war damage to Russia's cultural heritage to be at least $1.3 trillion.

Under the draft law, Russia would keep all artworks taken from Germany except those that had been stolen from former Soviet republics earlier in the war. Those would be returned to their original owners.

The Federation Council has passed the bill on to the lower house, the Duma, for "immediate consideration."

German diplomats in Russia have urged Moscow to let negotiations resolve the fate of the contested treasures. A third round of talks between the two countries' restitution committees is scheduled for late June, although action by the Duma in support of the council's draft law is expected before that session.

Knight reported from St. Petersburg and Williams from Moscow.

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