‘This is an exquisitely executed porcelain vase with an extraordinary rediscovery story,’ says Christie’s Russian Art specialist Margo Oganesian. ‘I’ve never seen anything like this at auction before.’
The large Soviet porcelain vase in question was designed in 1928 by Rudolf Vilde, one of the leading ceramics painters at the State Porcelain Factory in St Petersburg. It was made, says the specialist, as a propaganda showpiece to celebrate the success of the Soviet rescue operation for the survivors of the airship Italia, which crashed on its return flight from a North Pole expedition in May 1928.
This vase — ‘in pristine condition’ according to Oganesian — has remained in the same family for more than half a century, and will be offered for the first time at auction in the Russian Art sale on 25 November at Christie’s in London.
The 1928 crash of the airship Italia and ensuing rescue mission made headlines across Europe. The airship, which belonged to the Italian Air Force, was used by General Umberto Nobile in his second series of flights around the North Pole. On its return flight from the Arctic the airship ran into a storm and crashed, killing many of the 20 personnel on board.
The nine survivors split into two groups to summon help: one was led by Nobile, and the other by Swedish meteorologist Finn Malmgren. Although their distress signal was received by an amateur Russian radio operator soon after the crash, the group remained stranded for nearly two months.
Eight countries made 32 attempts to save the stranded men. Among those who volunteered to assist with the rescue effort was Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer who had led the first expedition to the South Pole in 1911. Tragically, Amundsen and five others disappeared on a flight to Spitsbergen during the mission.
On 11 July 1928, Soviet pilot Boris Chukhnovski successfully rescued the survivors from Malmgren’s group in a three-engine Junkers aircraft. That same day, the Soviet icebreaker Krassin picked up the remaining five people from Nobile’s crew, thus completing the final rescue mission.
The present vase of tapering, bulbous form depicts the three-engine Junkers aircraft flown by Chukhnovski in an Arctic landscape. ‘It is one of only two known vases commissioned by the State Porcelain Factory in 1928 to record the success of the Soviet rescue operation,’ says the specialist. ‘It is very probable that this vase is the one recorded in the State Porcelain Factory’s archives under the title Rescue of Malmgren’s Crew.’
Its mate, the whereabouts of which is unknown but to which our vase bears a striking resemblance, is recorded in the archives under the name Arctic. Krassin.
There’s also a surviving drawing depicting the rescue mission of 1928, which now resides in the Central State Archives for Literature and Art in St Petersburg.
It features an almost identical landscape, but a different aircraft. ‘It’s probable that Vilde completed a series of drawings of the rescue mission on behalf of the State Porcelain Factory,’ adds Oganesian. ‘But only the successful Soviet rescue operation was finally commissioned for reproduction on porcelain.’
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The vase’s impressive size, excellent execution and propagandist design suggest that it was made to be showcased at one of the International Exhibitions, where, the specialist presumes, it was probably acquired by a private collector.
‘The market for Soviet porcelain is booming’, says the specialist. ‘That this impeccably preserved vase comes to market for the first time in more than half a century will make it extremely attractive to porcelain collectors — and, of course, those interested in polar exploration, too.’