A pair of small Greek icons, references WHA, YIY Icon of Deesis with Christ Emmanuel (62, 63, 64) 12 x 31in (total) Triod, Stroganov School, 16-17th century Saint Alexander Nevsky in silver-gilt oklad (911), Moscow, 1908-1917, maker's mark SG in Cyrillic An Icon of Hodigitria Mother of God, tryptych (38), 8 x 20in Icon of Christ Pantocrator in silver-gilt oklad and beaded riza (13), 14 x 13in Icon of the Annunciation in silver-gilt basma with pearls (19), 16th-17th century, 12 3/8 x 10 3/16in Icon of Saint Alexander Nevsky (930) Icon of Smolensk Mother of God with tryptych in metal oklad and basma (19), Russian, 1650-1700, 13 5/8 x 35in (total)

As the Soviets sold off their art treasures, one American ambassador began collecting. It provided solace during a grim posting.Vanora Bennett opens the diplomatic bag

Art was perhaps the only consolation for Laurence Steinhardt during his difficult posting to Moscow. By profession a successful New York lawyer, Steinhardt was American Ambassador from 1939 to 1941, a political appointee who had turned diplomat in his forties after working on, and donating to, Roosevelt's 1932 election campaign.

After postings in Sweden and Peru, he arrived in Moscow on the eve of the Second World War. A sour note was immediately struck with the revelation of the secret Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact in the summer of 1939. From then on, the ambassador's desire to handle Moscow firmly put him increasingly at odds with the more accommodating President Roosevelt. Stalin also came to dislike and distrust Steinhardt and refused to meet him, leaving the ambassador as isolated in Moscow as in Washington. Dennis Dunn's Caught between Roosevelt & Stalin quotes a Soviet evaluation of Steinhardt as "a wealthy bourgeoisie". Steinhardt, in turn, criticised the 'oriental' makeup of the Soviet authorities, writing, "Their standards of ethics are diametrically the opposite of those which prevail in occidental countries. As a result it is impossible to deal with them as one would deal with westerners." Eventually Roosevelt bypassed his ambassador altogether and dispatched his own emissaries to negotiate with Stalin. In November 1941, Steinhardt resigned and was reassigned to Turkey.

Steinhardt's predecessor as Ambassador, Joseph Davies, was more tolerant of Stalin's policies, but one thing the pair did share was a love of Russian religious painting. Between yachting in the Gulf of Finland and attending elaborate Kremlin dinners, Davies and his wife, the flamboyant cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, had used residence at the ambassadorial Spasso House as an opportunity to buy religious art on a grand scale. Steinhardt followed in their footsteps – he turned to the study of icons. Bringing the same intensity of purpose and devotion to detail to this research as to his legal and diplomatic work, he became artistically, historically, liturgically and spiritually knowledgeable. In his two-and-a-half years in Moscow, his collection grew to more than 60 icons. "He collected as a scholar and savant, not merely with a cheque in his hand as had so many others before him," his daughter Dulcie-Ann Steinhardt Sherlock once commented.

The Steinhardt collection, which will be offered at Bonhams New York in April, represented several artistic schools and a variety of subjects painted during the three-century Romanov dynasty that vanished after 1917. By 1939 these beautiful objects, venerated for centuries as a 'window to heaven' by Orthodox believers, no longer had a place in the atheist USSR. Nevertheless, canny Soviet officials were alert to their possible resale value – and so Steinhardt benefited from a state policy of selective art sales to foreign buyers for hard currency.

He was not the first. Since 1928, the Soviet leadership had been selling off art treasures confiscated from the church, the Imperial family and the aristocracy to wealthy buyers in the West. This was in a desperate attempt to raise money for the industrial imports needed to put into effect Stalin's First Five Year Plan. The richest art buyers were in America, and Moscow officials hoped that by selling art on the American market they could shrink the huge negative trade balance building up with American companies because of the Soviet imports of industrial goods. But their attempts to sell were hampered by the absence of diplomatic relations with Washington, broken off after the Bolshevik Party seized power. In the five years to 1933, when diplomatic relations were re-established, Moscow's Commissar for External and Internal Trade, Anastas Mikoyan, attempted to get round this obstacle both through secret deals with dealers and buyers in America, and through major public sales in Europe.

Andrew Mellon, the US Treasury Secretary until 1932, was among the early private buyers of great European art nationalised in Soviet Russia. In 1930 and 1931, he paid more than $6 million for 21 works from the Hermitage which were delivered to him in Berlin. Another important buyer was Calouste Gulbenkian, head of the Iraq Petroleum Company and, like Mikoyan, an Armenian by birth. He bought major paintings from the Hermitage in 1929 and 1930, including a Rubens, two Rembrandts and a Watteau, commenting wryly that all the haggling over the prices had turned his hair white. In the summer of 1933, The Burlington Magazine complained of the "ever-increasing impoverishment of the Hermitage".

But Moscow's art-sales policy suffered diminishing returns because, in the wake of the Wall Street Crash of 1929, prices dropped worldwide. The entire contents of the Stroganov Palace, sold in Berlin in May 1931, fetched only a whisker over $600,000. The great German art auctions came to an end with the rise of the Nazis in 1933.

By 1931, the Soviets had also started selling off other treasures – tapestries, chandeliers, furniture, and also icons. One conduit to the United States was a German art syndicate that sold on these luxury items through the Wallace H. Day Gallery in New York. The New York-based British dealer Joseph Duveen went to Russia to buy tapestries from imperial palaces. But the big winner was an American businessman, Armand Hammer, who had gone to Russia in the 1920s to invest in asbestos and later pencils, and made Mikoyan's acquaintance in 1923. He well understood the fascination that fabulous Tsarist treasures would hold for wealthy Americans tied to the humdrum life of a democracy.

Following a 1928 agreement that Hammer and his brother could sell their concessions and expatriate their belongings from Russia, the brothers started selling huge numbers of Russian treasures in US department stores and in their own gallery.

After 1933, art came to be marketed more conventionally, through other dealers and galleries abroad. By the mid-1930s the great Soviet sell-off was winding down.

There was just one more burst of selling in the Moscow of the late 1930s, at the height of Stalin's purges. These sales were perhaps motivated as much by Moscow's wish to win American political friendship as by the hunt for hard currency. Ambassador Davies' wife, guided by Duveen, had already made a name for herself back home as a collector of 18th-century French decorative items. In Moscow, she and her husband were able to buy large quantities of icons, chalices and paintings in Moscow and Leningrad at special concession stores.

Intrigued by icons, they entered the market just as the Soviet government began selling off supposedly inferior works – not from the 15th-century Golden Age of icon painting, when Russia had been closed to the West, but those showing the influence of Western art and culture that dated from the three subsequent centuries of Romanov rule. Frances Wilkinson Rosso, the wife of the Italian ambassador, Augusto Rosso, was also entranced by these 'decadent' works. But it was Steinhardt who, after the Davies' departure, became the last Westerner to build up a truly extraordinary personal collection of Romanov-era icons. His taste ran both to those with gilding, also a penchant of Marjorie Post, and those of the peasantry. However, with Steinhardt's departure for Turkey, the Soviet government reinstated the restrictions on art exports that it had quietly dropped in 1928. And the door closed.

For all the saints

Vanora Bennett charts the development of Russian icons from plain to pearl-encrusted

n icon, or sacred devotional image, is both a work of art and a 'window to heaven' through which a worshipper can find inspiration and draw closer to God through his prayers.

Traditionally, every Orthodox home had its 'beautiful corner' where the image of a favourite saint, painted in the flat mediaeval style of Byzantium, was lit by a candle. As the Greek theologian St John of Damascus (675-749) put it, "The icon is a song of triumph and revelation, and an enduring monument to the victory of the saints and the disgrace of the demons."

Icons first appeared around the third century and have been an intrinsic part of Eastern Christian worship ever since. The word is from the Greek for image, and the Russian Orthodox Church inherited the Greek-speaking Byzantine artistic style that had evolved from mosaics and fresco painting in early churches. (To be worthy of spiritual contemplation, each scene and saint had to be depicted in a particular way, which explains the persistence of an archaic style).

In Russia, the Golden Age of icon painting is held to be the 15th century, before so-called polluting influences from the West started coming Muscovy's way under the rule of Ivan the Terrible. Icons from throughout Russia's 700 mediaeval years of isolation are valued for their strict Orthodoxy, and imbued with naive, striking innocence.

The icons that Steinhardt bought ranged from those of the peasant class – humble, roughly painted wood – to those that used more luxurious materials. There are some examples from the 16th century, but in the main, the icons date from the 17th century to the early 20th – or, put another way – from the time of Peter the Great's decision to end Russian isolation, by building St Petersburg as Russia's 'window on the West', to the death of the last Romanov Tsar, Nicholas II, after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

Outside influences and signs of change are visible everywhere. These later icons might have more sophisticated lighting, shadow and contour, or opulent Baroque flesh (as with the Protection of the Mother of God icon). Or they might have the scattering of gold and jewels that signifies the rise of a status-conscious elite class. A Christ Pantocrator's elaborate metal cover is embellished with a pearl/bead garment. An Annunciation from the early 1600s has a silver and gilt border with an exquisite inner edge of pearls. At the centre of a mid-17th-century triptych, the Mother of God of Smolensk looks peacefully at the baby Jesus. The icon's heavily figured gold cover outshines, though only just, the tracings of her richly embroidered cloth-of-gold robe, and that of her child. The left wing of the triptych depicts the Resurrection, Annunciation and Crucifixion of Christ, while the right wing carries a painting of the Decollation of St John the Baptist with Christ Emmanuel – both equally glittering.

One of the depictions of St Alexander Nevsky in this collection not only has the bulbous eyes and extremely long legs of the six-foot-eight Tsar Peter the Great, but he is shown in a very perspective-conscious palace room, being watched by celestial figures whose draperies are impeccable studies in foreshortening – a far cry from the conventional flatness of Byzantine compositions.

For a long time, these markers of the new meant that all Romanov-era icons were dismissed as symptoms of the genre's decline. Added to this was the fact that, by the end of Tsarism – and icon production in Russia – icons were being mass-produced and even imported from Europe.

But over the past decade, interest has grown in late icons and Romanov-era images have been widely exhibited. According to Wendy Salmond, an associate professor of art history at Chapman University in Orange, California, late could be great: "These late icons are increasingly attracting the attention of scholars and collectors, who see in them both bridges to the past and mirrors of ongoing historical change."

Vanora Bennett is an author and awardwinning journalist. Her new book The White Russian is published in June.

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