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Hermitage treasures due here

Editor's note: A group of 32 St. Petersburg residents traveled to Russia to work on acquiring a twin-city relationship with St. Petersburg, Russia. The residents paid their own way. Among the group are six City Council members, neighborhood leaders, members of the exhibition committee, chamber of commerce representatives and city administrators. St. Petersburg Times staff writer Alicia Caldwell accompanied the group on the trip.

Maybe it was the Faberge necklace. Or the ball gown of spun silver thread or the mystique of a backroom tour of never-before-displayed imperial treasures.

Whatever the cause, a two-day tour of Russia's Hermitage museum left a group from St. Petersburg, Fla., enchanted and convinced they should show the items in Florida next year.

To that end, city civic leaders signed a letter of intent Thursday to obtain an exhibition of about 400 items from the reign of Nicholas and Alexandra, the last czar and czarina of Russia.

"I was overwhelmed," said Dick Johnston, an accounting consultant from St. Petersburg and a director of Florida Cultural Exhibitions, a non-profit group that will underwrite the exhibit. "Nobody has seen this stuff before. It was stunning."

The agreement was forged with the Hermitage, one of the world's premier museums. The items to be in the exhibition were used by the last imperial family that ruled Russia before the advent of communism.

The exhibition group estimates it will cost $5.5-million to transport, insure and display the works. The seed money will be raised privately and no public funding of the exhibition is planned.

Promoters are hoping only to break even, said John O'Hearn, a director of the exhibition committee and executive vice president/general manager at the St. Petersburg Times. Their effort is modeled after a venture in Memphis, Tenn., which has made several such arrangements with foreign museums.

The St. Petersburg group is hoping that the exclusivity of the Nicholas and Alexandra exhibit will draw the kind of crowds Memphis has attracted _ 600,000 from all over the world in a matter of months.

Nicholas and Alexandra presided over a world of lavish balls and opulent palaces at the turn of the century. After their execution in 1918 at the hands of revolutionaries, mention of them was taboo for decades.

It is only in the past few years, since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, that their part in Russia's history can be publicly acknowledged without fear of reprisal.

That cloak of secrecy and denial also has shrouded the treasures of the royal family until now. The directors of the Hermitage have said on several occasions that they want St. Petersburg, Fla., to be the first city in the world to have the exhibit.

To show the Florida group the items chosen, at least preliminarily, about a dozen Hermitage curators took turns leading it through cramped, often dimly lit storage rooms filled to the rafters with pieces of silver, china, paintings, photographs, jewels and clothing.

The curators had chosen significant pieces from the era of Nicholas and Alexandra from their cabinets and racks. It was items such as these _ a jeweled dragonfly pin, an intricately painted religious icon and a rare china vase made for the Romanov family _ that the St. Petersburg group pored over.

"The world has not seen these things before," said Vera Espinola, a conservator working for the exhibition group.

The exhibition group is set to begin final negotiations on such details as the Hermitage's fee and how gift shop proceeds will be shared. The letter of intent states that a final contract will be signed in February, Espinola said.

The exhibition is scheduled to begin in February 1993 to coincide with the beginning of the tourist season, and is set to run for four months.

"It's going to be one of the most significant art exhibitions in the southeastern United States," said Mayor David Fischer, who organized the trip to Russia. "This treasure will make the city proud."

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