From the moment Paul Gottlieb was shown into a locked, dark storage room in the Hermitage late last September in St. Petersburg, he knew he had a hit on his hands. In front of Mr. Gottlieb, the president of the publishing house Harry N. Abrams, were 74 breathtaking Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings seized in Germany during World War II. Most had never been seen by the public, and the Russian authorities had not even acknowledged their existence despite foreign press reports about them.
Early this year, the glimmer in his eye became "Hidden Treasures Revealed," the catalogue for the landmark show on view in St. Petersburg. And Abrams is glowing over a book that is selling around the world like nest-egg dolls on Russian street corners. Some 170,000 copies of the book are in print, and Abrams began organizing another printing of 50,000 copies even before Mikhail B. Piotrovsky, the director of the Hermitage, announced last Tuesday that he was extending the show by four months, through next March.
Such demand is extraordinary in the art-book world, where sales usually range from 10,000 to 15,000 copies. Catalogues for blockbuster museum shows go higher but rarely crack six figures. The Metropolitan Museum of Art printed 30,000 copies of the catalogue for last year's big show, "The Origins of Impressionism," and it still has a few left. The catalogue for the Museum of Modern Art's huge Matisse retrospective in 1992 sold 30,000 hard-cover copies and 120,000 in paperback.
"It's a terrific book," Nancy Kranz, a member of the Museum of Modern Art's publications department, said of "Hidden Treasures," "especially given the time frame in which they put it out."
Indeed, Mr. Gottlieb's trip a year ago started a race against time to publish the volume before the exhibition opened in March, at what had to be warp speed for art-book publishers. And therein lies a tale that, appropriately, is a bit like Winston Churchill's famous description of Russia as "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma."
The saga started with something of a riddle: In February 1994, Mr. Gottlieb got a hint from Albert Kostenevich, a senior curator at the Hermitage, that "something might be happening" at the museum. Six months later, Mr. Gottlieb got a second clue in the form of an oblique fax from Dr. Piotrovsky that referred to an exhibition, listed a few artists and invited Abrams to get involved. Mr. Gottlieb wired back that he would stop in to see Dr. Piotrovsky on a trip to Europe he had scheduled for last September.
Abrams's task became something of a mystery -- a logistical one, at least -- after Mr. Gottlieb took on the project. He and the Abrams staff had to figure out how to get the photography, writing, translating, editing, re-translating, designing and printing accomplished -- in the United States, Russia and Italy -- in a small fraction of the normal production time for an illustrated art catalogue.
Then the Churchillian analogy breaks down, however: there's no enigma. Sales of "Hidden Treasures" quickly surpassed Mr. Gottlieb's hopes, and by Christmas, worldwide sales are expected to top 250,000 books in seven languages.
Recently, Mr. Gottlieb relaxed in his office on lower Fifth Avenue and recalled his first impression: "I felt that if we sold 50,000 to 60,000 copies, I'd be happy."
Sales of "Hidden Treasures" will never match the all-time best-selling art catalogue: "The Treasures of King Tutankhamun" sold two million copies. But that comparison is unfair. "Tut was a huge media event, and it appealed to a whole different audience that doesn't go to museums," explained Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan, which helped organize the Egyptian show. During its seven-city tour, from November 1976 through September 1979, more than eight million Americans bought tickets and waited in line to see artifacts from Tut's tomb.
Back then, too, "catalogues tended to be rather smaller," Mr. de Montebello said. "Now catalogues substitute for scholarly art books and don't sell as well." They also cost more. "Tut," in paperback, sold for just $6.95, or $18.63 in 1995 dollars; "Hidden Treasures," a hard-bound book, is $49.50.
A year ago, long before the price was decided, Mr. Gottlieb had other things on his mind, starting with having the opening of the show postponed. Dr. Piotrovsky had planned a January opening, creating an impossible deadline for Abrams. Mr. Gottlieb won a two-month reprieve, giving him six months.
Only one book matches Abrams's production feat, publishing executives said. "La Grove Chauvet," which describes the 30,000-year-old cave paintings discovered on Dec. 18 in the Ardeche region, came out in late May in France.
Yet by comparison "La Grove Chauvet" is a simple book, written and produced in one language and covering a single subject. "Hidden Treasures" was written in Russian, translated into English for editing and retranslated into Russian (and eventually into other languages). Each painting it examined has a distinct history; each varies in color and scale, making reproduction much more complicated.
But all this lay ahead last Sept. 22, when Mr. Gottlieb returned from St. Petersburg with about half of the book's manuscript under his arm. Luckily, Mr. Kostenevich, the author, had secretly researched the paintings' provenance on his trips to Paris, New York and other art capitals, and he had started writing in the spring of 1994.
Mr. Gottlieb also brought a draft contract, in Russian. By necessity, he could not wait for the final contract giving Abrams world rights before assembling a team for the book. Members had to begin devising a plan to design, translate, edit, lay out, produce and do all the normal publishing chores simultaneously instead of sequentially.
On Sept. 24, Dr. Piotrovsky announced that there would be a show of the stolen works. Mr. Gottlieb learned of the announcement -- he had no idea Dr. Piotrovsky would go public so soon -- from a friend in St. Petersburg. Almost immediately, he went to the phone, calling John Russell, the former chief art critic of The New York Times.
Before writing, however, Mr. Russell wanted to speak with Dr. Piotrovsky, who by chance was coming to New York on Oct. 1. They met that day, and Mr. Russell broke the news of the show to Americans in a front-page article on Oct. 4.
Mr. Gottlieb, meanwhile, had already flown to Germany for the annual Frankfurt Book Fair. Using nothing but copies of the article in The Times, which had been faxed to him, he shook hands on deals with several European publishers.
Now Abrams just had to deliver a book in time for the presses at Mondadori Press in Verona, Italy, to roll in January, shrinking the time needed for the job from years to months. All through October, three translators were busy converting the Russian manuscript into English. An Abrams designer, Miko McGinty, set to work, even though she had no color transparencies of the paintings to work with.
They came by hand. Mr. Kostenevich brought them to New York on Nov. 7, when he settled in for a month to write the second half of the book and its introductory essay. Pictures came before words, however. During his first two days in New York, Mr. Kostenevich and Ms. McGinty sat side by side at her computer, laying out the plates.
Meanwhile, Abrams had commandeered a computer keyboard outfitted with the Cyrillic alphabet. For the next four weeks, Mr. Kostenevich wrote and rewrote, leaving the Abrams office during the day only to do more research or to ferret out supplementary black-and-white photographs of the paintings at New York's museums and libraries or at Sotheby's, the auction house.
Everything he wrote had to be translated, to allow James Leggio, the editor, to do his job. Then it was re-translated for the book's Russian-language edition. All the mechanical work -- color separation of the photos, layout specifications, composition and proofreading -- was happening, too. It was a round-the-clock job, with many staff members working late nights, weekends and through the Abrams's Christmas party.
A few days before Christmas, most of the book's pages were sent to Mondadori by air courier. Only one editing task remained: Dr. Piotrovsky had yet to deliver his preface to the book. When that finally arrived on Dec. 30, spoiling only the translators' New Year's, the work in New York was largely done.
By mid-January, Mondadori was ready to push the button on the presses -- but not without supervision. Mr. Kostenevich, Mr. Leggio and Ms. McGinty went to Verona for last-minute revisions and to watch the presses roll. First shipments of the book left Verona in early March, some for St. Petersburg and some for New York, in plenty of time for the show's opening on March 30.
But the job was not done. Work began almost immediately to translate the text into Italian, Japanese, German, French and Spanish. Abrams is still negotiating for additional foreign-language editions, such as one in Chinese.
Mr. Gottlieb would not disclose the book's financial status except to say that Abrams was sharing its profit 50-50 with the Russians and that "the Russians will earn six figures" at least. Clearly, the strong sales have vindicated the $100,000 in extra costs Abrams incurred to make its tight deadline.
The story is not quite over. By late August, more than 600,000 people, including about 200,000 foreign tourists, had seen the pictures at the Hermitage. And the show will go on for six more months.