Catherine The Greats 1787 Letter Urging Vaccination And Portrait Fetch USD 1.26 Million At Auction

This letter written by Empress Catherine the Great of Russia in 1787 advocating vaccination has been sold for USD 1.26 million after it was put up for auction together with a portrait of her.

The portrait of the Russian Empress Catherine II – also known as Catherine the Great – by the artist Dmitry Levitsky, as well as the letter written by her about the benefits of vaccination against smallpox, went under the hammer at an auction held by the MacDougall’s auction house in London for GBP 951,000 (USD 1.26 million) yesterday (Wednesday 1st December).

The founder of the auction house, William MacDougall, confirmed the figure with Newsflash. He added: “The Catherine the Great letter received great interest and publicity in Russia and the West given its relevance to current events. Moreover, the portrait was an unusual contemporary painting of Catherine by a Russian, and so is important to the history of Russian Art.”

The letter of Catherine the Great, the last reigning Empress of Russia, about the importance of vaccination.
(MacDougall Auctions/Newsflash)

The letter and portrait had been valued at between GBP 800,000 and GBP 1.2 million.

The famous Russian ruler was the first in the country to be vaccinated against smallpox after her future husband was disfigured during an epidemic of the disease.

She wrote the letter to explain how to organise a vaccination campaign on a large scale, warning that without vaccination, there would be “great harm especially among the common people”.

The letter, which the Russian Empress wrote on 20th April 1787, was auctioned by McDougall’s auction house, which is based in London in the United Kingdom, along with a portrait of her by Imperial artist and portrait painter Dmitry Levitsky (1735-1822).


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Letter From Russian Empress Catherine The Great On Importance Of Vaccination Under The Hammer


Catherine the Great (1729-1796), also known as Catherine II, wrote the letter, “about inoculating against smallpox in parts of present-day Ukraine”, during a trip to Crimea. It was addressed to Count Petr Alexandrovich Rumiantsev.

The letter is the first known document regarding Russia’s very first vaccination campaign, according to the auction house, which specialises in Russian art.

William McDougall said that the letter was “certainly topical at the moment” and that it was “very interesting that prominent leaders encouraging vaccination is nothing new”.

The letter reads, according to the auction house: “Count Piotr Aleksandrovich, among the other duties of the Welfare Boards in the Provinces entrusted to you, one of the most important should be the introduction of inoculation against smallpox, which, as we know, causes great harm, especially among the ordinary people.

“Such inoculation should be common everywhere, and it is now all the more convenient, since there are doctors or medical attendants in nearly all districts, and it does not call for huge expenditure.”

William MacDougall, director of the MacDougall Auction House, where a letter and a portrait of Catherine The Great will be auctioned.
(MacDougall Auctions/Newsflash)

It also reportedly says: “To set an example of this, issue an order on the first occasion in each provincial town, to count the remaining superfluous conventual residences or the small monasteries that have been abolished, and build the minimum number of lodgings for the temporary stay of those who are unable to have this inoculation at home; money needed for this could be borrowed from town revenues.

“Provincial doctors can put this matter right, especially since now there are people sent from us who have a low salary against the regulations: so, since Dr Gund in Novgorod-Seversky can successfully carry out this inoculation, then add three hundred rubles to his regular salary from the remaining income from the former monastery estates. We remain, by the way, favourably disposed towards you.”

It is signed “Catherine” and, according to the auction, house it bears “the Empress’s personal signature”.

McDougall said that it is “not only a unique, authentic document from that age but also an extremely pertinent testimony to the statecraft and foresight shown by the great monarch”.

Catherine the Great ruled Russia from 1762 until her death in 1796. She expanded the country’s borders and was a fervent patron of the arts. The Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg started out as her own private collection.

According to the auction house, after successfully being vaccinated against smallpox, the Empress “proudly wrote to her ambassador plenipotentiary in Britain, Count Ivan Grigorievuch Chernyshev”, saying: “We now have only two topics of conversation: the first is the (Russo-Turkish) war, and the second is vaccination.

“Starting with me and my son, who is also recovering, there is no noble house in which there are not several vaccinated persons, and many regret that they had smallpox naturally and so cannot be fashionable. Count Grigory Grigorievich Orlov, Count Kirill Grigorievich Razumovsky and countless others have passed through Mr Dimsdale’s hands – and even renowned beauties… Here is what example means.”

Catherine MacDougall, co-director of the MacDougall Auction House, where a letter and a portrait of Catherine The Great will be auctioned.
(MacDougall Auctions/Newsflash)

The second part of the lot that was up for auction was the portrait, which was “executed by one of Russia’s greatest 18th-century masters” and “may rightly be regarded as the highest quality work by Dmitry Levitsky in its own right”, the auction house said.

They added: “It is one of the examples of Catherine the Great iconography, which are extremely rare on the art market.”

MacDougall’s was founded in 2004, with William MacDougall saying: “My wife, Catherine, is Russian, and I’m a quarter Russian. We both worked in the City for many years, and whenever we had a bit of money, we bought Russian Art

“Consequently, we gained experience in financial markets and in auctions from the standpoint of collectors. Seventeen years ago we spotted a gap in the market, and decided to set up the auction house, at what turned out to be an excellent time.”


To find out more about the author, editor or agency that supplied this story – please click below.
Story By: Joseph GolderSub-EditorJames King, Agency: Newsflash

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