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With tales of art spies and adventure on the high seas, and fascinating details about the minutiae of the transaction – from the vilification of Catherine in the British press to how the collection helped this self-confessed art glutton turn Russia from a feudal society to an enlightened, modern one – this would be absorbing on anyone’s terms, but it doesn’t end there.
Equally interesting are how the current exhibition (on until 29 September) came together, and Dan Cruickshank’s clear love of the works; as he anxiously watches a painting being removed from the stuccoed ceiling of the Hermitage by a bunch of guys on scaffolding, we can’t help but share his pain, and the closing quarter, in which he explores the Houghton exhibition with genuine wonder, creates TV drama at its best. Delicious stuff.