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Billionaire pays extremely high price for Rostropovich collection

Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov said Friday he bought the art collection of the late cellist Mstislav Rostropovich for the state by offering the upper limit of the value established by the auction house.

Usmanov said on Ekho Moskvy radio that he paid 36 million pounds (US$72.6 million; EUR 51.6 million) on the eve of an auction by Sotheby's which was to begin Tuesday in London, forcing the auction house to cancel it.

"I paid the maximum price along with a bonus," Usmanov told the radio, adding that he had paid a commission to Sotheby's.

He said the Rostropovich collection would be brought to Russia next month, and he would hand it over to the state.

The auction had been anticipated as one of the art market's major events of the year. With some 450 pieces, including porcelain and works by renowned Russian painters such as Ilya Repin, the collection was expected to fetch US$25-40 million (EUR17.8-28.5 million) - and perhaps much more, given the current high level of interest in Russian art.

Russia's Federal Culture Agency chief Mikhail Shvydkoi has said that the government agency presented Sotheby's with guarantees that "the transaction would be in the interest of the Russian Federation." He said the government itself did not have sufficient funds to buy the collection, but had appealed to representatives of the nation's business community to buy the entire collection.

Usmanov's fortune comes from mining, telecoms and natural gas and he now runs a unit of state-controlled gas monopoly OAO Gazprom.

The deal underlined the sometimes dizzying wealth amassed by some Russian businessmen over the past 17 years and their eagerness to please the Kremlin. It also highlighted Russians' concerns that much country's best art has ended up overseas, either spirited away during spasms of war and political chaos or snapped up at low prices by foreign collectors during periods of economic distress.

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