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There are more than a few antique shops in historic Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, a short walk from my suburban neighborhood. Antiquing is normally of interest only if my mother-in-law is visiting, but some years back a friend messaged me to let me know one of the shops had something I should see. On the back wall, shunted behind a variety of well-preserved 19th century furniture, were two large Soviet propaganda paintings.
The first was a portrait of three strapping Russian sailors, wearing bandoleers across their chests, in front of the Aurora—the infamous ship that fired the first shot on the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, launching the Russian Revolution. The second painting, of soldiers smoking in a field in Afghanistan, was less dramatic but a better and more impressionistic piece of art. Both paintings were done by well-known graduates of the Kharkov Art Institute and were fine examples of Soviet socialist realism—insofar as one can take any art movement that began under Stalin seriously. I inquired about the paintings, and all the clerk was able to tell me was that they originally came from the estate of a man named Samuel Cummings.
If you know anything about Samuel Cummings, you may suspect the two Soviet paintings were some of his more prosaic possessions. When the billionaire died in 1998, he owned, among many other things, the sword Napoleon carried at Waterloo. For years, he tried to open a museum in Alexandria to exhibit his collection of exotic and historic weaponry, though that never came to fruition.
As interesting as that sounds, Cummings' collection is in some respects less interesting than the manner in which he acquired it. For nearly 50 years, he was the largest arms dealer in the world.
In recent years, the waterfront in Old Town Alexandria along the Potomac River has been redeveloped. Some of the land was seized by eminent domain, the area turned into parks and boardwalks and otherwise made an inviting spot for tourists looking to schlep around the same streets once haunted by George Washington. But when I moved to the area a decade ago, there was also a small wooden building on the water where you could still make out a sign that said Interarms—the name of Cummings' company. The building is now gone, and it's hard to imagine that, through the 1980s, the same waterfront now littered with restaurants and boutiques was an industrial port where Cummings owned a series of converted tobacco warehouses stacked to the rafters with guns.
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