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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Treasure Hunter Displays Collected Tibetan Art

"Everyone's got a passion: Some people drink, some play cards -- I collect."


It is perhaps only natural that Alexander Dobrovinsky collects. He represents the fourth generation of a family that has enjoyed this passion of seeking out, finding, culling, gathering, sorting, and, finally, displaying.


Now some of the fruits of Dobrovinsky's searches, a collection of Tibetan art, are available for public viewing at Moscow's Oriental Museum in the exhibition "Masterpieces of Buddhist Art from the Collection of A. Dobrovinsky." The nearly 300 items include paintings on silk and sculptures representing the myriad divinities in the Buddhist pantheon, gathered from various sources over a period of three years.


Dobrovinsky, 41, a Harvard-educated Russian corporate lawyer at Moscow's Privest, has collected from an early age: "I started -- like many boys my age -- to collect stamps," Dobrovinsky explained last week. "Soon afterward, though, I put them aside ... In general, it was undoubtedly the hunter's instinct that got me interested. Stamps were too easy: You could go, if you had rubles or dollars or pounds, just go to a store and right away buy a complete set. That's not interesting. That takes away the sense of the search. And I think that the collector has first and foremost an inherent hunting instinct."


This instinct has led Dobrovinsky to assemble three large collections, his most recent of Tibetan religious art from the 18th to 20th centuries; one of Russian porcelain of the Soviet period; and one of Russian regimental pectoral badges and medals from the late 19th and 20th centuries.


If the first instinct of the collector is to hunt the items down, to assemble a group of items in a particular category, the second might be to display them to a wider public. Just as the Oriental Museum is presenting Dobrovinsky's Tibetan art collection, so the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts will display his Soviet-era Russian porcelain beginning this September.


How does Dobrovinsky decide what to collect? In the case of the Tibetan art, Dobrovinsky was driven by two factors. First, a philosophical enquiry had led him, he said, to ponder the question, "What is the human mind? What makes a person more or less intelligent?" After coming to the conclusion that intelligence is essentially the ability to analyze, he asked himself, "Which religion is in principle based on analysis?" He eventually decided on Buddhism -- though he is not himself a Buddhist -- a religion that encourages analysis of self. Second, Dobrovinsky was interested in exploring the intersection of one culture with another, in this case, the Tibetan with the Russian, specifically through Buddhist Kalmykia and Buryatia.


When it came down to actually collecting the items, Dobrovinsky said he followed the activities of other Russian collectors, keeping track of what they selected for themselves, gradually getting a sense of which objects were important, authentic: "When you get involved with a particular material, you become an expert yourself. And once you become an expert, you begin to select the items yourself." He did not seek out the advice of area experts, preferring instead to collect "with my heart, not my ears."


Aside from benefiting from those collectors who had ties to China, Tibet, Mongolia or Buryatia, Dobrovinsky also found some items himself among families of railroad workers. During the Soviet period, "the Kalmyks were shipped off to Siberia, simply to their extinction. ... They were shipped off primarily during the winter, in horrible railcars, and some people died on the way." Then relatives or friends would deposit the corpses -- which they couldn't, of course, bury -- by the side of the tracks, leaving with the bodies icons or amulets, which railroad workers eventually found. "I found a few marvelous silks and amulets among the families of railroad workers," he said.


His collection fills three elegant halls of the second floor of the Oriental Museum. Tatyana Metaksa, organizer of the exhibit and chief of the museum's division of exhibitions and advertising, said of the entry hall, "For a Buddhist believer, it's almost like walking into a temple. Of course, it's not a temple, because we didn't observe the various canons, but there is a ... certain holy atmosphere." The uninitiated, who may not understand the religious significance behind the artifacts, may want to follow Dobrovinsky's approach to the items: "I was primarily interested ... in the aspect of depicting prayer on silk, and why that particular prayer should tell me something about myself, something about my own analysis."


Dobrovinsky may well achieve with his collections what his forebears did not: keep them intact for many future generations. His father's sidearms were lost in World War II; his grandfather's French and Italian paintings of the 17th and 18th centuries were liquidated by the government; and only two or three of his great-grandfather's precious manuscripts remain.


Dobrovinsky greatly values the passing down of heritage, regardless of the twists and turns of fate -- through upheaval, revolution, war -- that may have placed the sacred or invaluable in the hands of the grasping or merely unwitting: "Thank God they preserved [these items] until now. ... We collectors are all linked by one philosophy: Preserve this for someone. Because if we threw everything away as everything was thrown away in this country and other countries, we wouldn't have a culture left."





"Masterpieces of Buddhist Art from the Collection of A. Dobrovinsky" will be shown at the Oriental Museum, 12a Nikitsky Bulvar, through July 7. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Closed Monday. Tel. 202-4555. Nearest metro: Arbatskaya.