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How a statue created by a sculptor from Vilnius ended up on Russian money

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Residents of Vilnius surely know Mark Antokolsky street in the Old Town. Those who are more attentive may have even noticed a few commemorative plaques that mention him. But not everyone knows who Mark Antokolsky really was. Even less people know that this person is also connected to Russian rouble banknote design. So, who was Mark Antokolsky and what did he have to do with the Russian money?


Who was Mark Antokolsky?


Mark Antokolsky was one of the most famous Tsarist Russia sculptors who created official monuments and sculptures authorized by the government. Antokolsky’s hometown is Vilnius, even his surname gives that away. Antokolsky means “from Antakalnis”, i.e. Antakalnis residential district in Vilnius, which is where his family lived.


Mark (real name Mordechai) Antokolsky was born in 1843 in Vilnius to a poor Jewish family of eight children. As a child, he started painting and did it anywhere he could (even on furniture and walls). Although his parents did not really like it, they sent him to be an apprentice to a wood carver and that is where his talent as a sculptor flourished, so he was soon noticed by people from aristocracy. Thanks to the wife of Vladimir Nazumov, governor general of Vilnius, who was well-known as a patron of talented young people, Antokolsky was sent to Saint Petersburg’s Academy of Arts in 1862 (by the way, a letter of recommendation attesting to the talent of Antokolsky was also written by count Eustachy Tyszkiewicz). At the academy, he created wooden sculptures on the subjects of Jewish history and culture. His first well-known sculpture was created in 1870 and depicted Ivan the Terrible. This sculpture earned him the academic name. When Russia’s Emperor Alexander II saw that sculpture, he purchased it for 8,000 roubles (an impressive amount for those times) to be exhibited at the Hermitage museum.


During and after his studies, Antokolsky used to travel a lot in Western Europe, where he created art and received many awards for it. He was nominated as an honorary member in the art academies of the largest European cities. Although he resided in St. Petersburg and travelled a lot, he regularly returned to his hometown Vilnius. By the way, he used the money received for “Ivan the Terrible” to buy a house in Vilnius. In 1901, a monument that he created was erected at the Cathedral Square in Vilnius, depicting Empress of All Russia Catherine the Great (in 1915, the monument was taken down and moved to Russia, where it was most likely destroyed). 


In 1902, Mark Antokolsky passed away suddenly in Frankfurt am Main. After death, his body was solemnly transported by train to Saint Petersburg (the train also stopped in Vilnius where and people went to see it to pay their last respects) and was buried there.


During his lifetime, he created many famous sculptures that are now exhibited at various museums worldwide. Some of his sculptures are still standing in public places. One of them is a statue of Peter the Great, which still stands in a Russian city of Taganrog to this day. This statue is also connected to Russian money.


Mark Antokolsky’s sculpture on Russian banknotes


Taganrog is a city in the south west of Russia. It was founded in 1698 by Peter the Great, the first Emperor of Russia. In 1903, a statue dedicated to him and created on the basis of Mark Antokolsky’s model was erected there. Although a number of copies of this statue were made, this one is the only remaining copy of original height that was cast under the author’s supervision. During various periods in history, the statue was taken down, its location was changed, but finally, six decades ago, it was returned to its original spot: next to the entrance to the city park.


The statue depicts Peter the Great standing up, dressed in military uniform, one hand resting on a walking stick, the other gripping the handle of a sword.


Antokolsky came up with the idea for this statue in Russia and started working on it while residing in Rome in 1871. While building the model, he could not get used to Italian clay, so it took him an entire year of work from morning to evening to finish it.


In 1898, Taganrog was celebrating its 200th anniversary, so it was decided to erect a monument dedicated to the city’s founder, Peter the Great. Antokolsky entered the competition with his design. He was declared winner and the statue was erected in 1903. By the way, a famous Russian writer and playwright Anton Chekhov took care of its funding and personally met with the sculptor.


But what does this all have to do with Russian money? And not only the Russian Empire’s money, but also contemporary money?


In 1898, Russia issued a new banknote – a 500rouble state credit bill. It featured the portrait of Peter the Great (for the first time in the history of Russian rouble banknotes). The image used on the banknote was taken from the model of Antokolsky’s statue (which was already officially purchased by the government). Interestingly, there was no copyright law yet, so this image was used without the author’s consent and he was given no royalties. Antokolsky, who was then residing in Paris, found out about the new banknotes and decided to take action: he wrote a letter addressed to Sergei Witte, the Minister of Finance himself, jokingly asking to be paid royalties. The letter read:


...When I visited Saint Petersburg recently, I saw the new 500-rouble credit bills boasting the image of Peter the Great that was taken from a sculpture that I created. I was very glad to receive this honour that is so rarely given to artists before their death. However, publishers usually send the author at least a couple samples of their work, therefore, could Your Excellency be so kind as to issue a decree so that this courtesy be extended to me as well. Both me and my creditors would be sincerely grateful...


Witte understood the irony conveyed in the letter and soon issued that decree, so Antokolsky received four 500-rouble credit bills.


These banknotes were in circulation even after Antokolsky’s death, up until 1912.


However, this was not the only banknote that featured this sculpture or, more precisely, its copy. In 1995, Russia’s central bank issued a new 500,000 rouble banknote (which became a 500-rouble banknote in 1998). It features a statue of Peter the Great in Archangelsk. Actually, this statue is an exact copy of the one in Taganrog mould after its author’s death (there are more such statues in Russia). Interestingly, after the banknotes were issued, the mayor of Taganrog requested the central bank to pay compensation for non-material harm since the original statue stands in Taganrog. Of course, the compensation was not paid, the statue remained on the banknote and it is still featured on 500-rouble banknotes in circulation to this day.


In closing, let’s talk a little bit more about money. Although even the fact that a statue is featured on money makes it valuable, it is interesting that this work of art created by a sculptor from Vilnius is also valued worldwide. In 2011, an 80 cm copy of the statue, made by Antokolsky himself and bearing his signature, was sold at Christie’s Auction in New York for an impressive amount - 250 thousand US dollars!

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Last updated: 2021-06-25