Catherine the Great had been on the throne for only a year when she learned of a group of 225 paintings available in Berlin. The collection, reserved for Frederick II, included three Rembrandts, a Frans Hals, and a Rubens. But the Seven Years’ War had bankrupted Frederick, and his art dealer was left deep in debt with works his client could not purchase. With something close to glee, Catherine stepped in to buy the paintings out from under her erstwhile ally, and the collection that had been intended for Sans Souci went to the new Hermitage Museum. In the next few years, Catherine engaged in a buying spree, adding hundreds more artworks from French and British collections, many brokered through her advisor Denis Diderot. Catherine’s immense wealth brought ship after ship to the quay outside the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg, unloading packing crates...


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