Malevich's Art: Who Owns It?

Ninel Bykova, the sole living grandchild of the Russian avant-garde artist Kasimir Malevich, may be the only pensioner in the small city of Ulyanovsk who quickly refers a reporter to her attorney in Manhattan. Then again, it's not every Russian retiree whose representative is negotiating with the Museum of Modern Art in New York about art worth millions of dollars. Bykova and 18 other descendants of Malevich, a pioneer of 20th-century abstract painting, is arguing that 23 Malevich works at the Museum of Modern Art and two at the Busch-Reisinger Museum at Harvard University belong to them. The descendants, scattered in Russia, Ukraine, Poland and Turkmenistan, want the works either to be returned or paid for. Their demand represents a new twist in the "trophy art" cases in which Germany and the Netherlands are trying to reclaim thousands of art treasures taken by the Soviets after the defeat of Germany in World War II. "This is the first case where Russian people are claiming their rights in the United States," said Clemens Toussaint, a German art historian whose firm, T. T. Consult, researches lost art and who brought the Malevich descendants together. Toussaint, who said he hopes a settlement -- offering primarily money, rather than art -- will be reached this year, said he may help the Malevich family pursue a similar claim against the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, which has the most important Malevich collection outside Russia. The fate of lost art is one of the 20th century's most tantalizing mysteries. Just as lives were uprooted by World War II, so was valuable art work hidden, stolen and smuggled abroad. Now, as part of the broader unraveling of the Soviet Union, the mysteries are being solved. In the past two years, Russia has acknowledged having much trophy art, including priceless gold treasures from the ruins of Troy that were taken from Germany and a collection of paintings by Dutch masters that a Soviet officer had taken from the cellar of a German castle. While it was known that art also traveled West during the chaos of the war, it is unlikely that anyone expected a pensioner from Ulyanovsk, the birthplace of Lenin 700 kilometers southeast of Moscow, to demand financial compensation from prominent Western museums. "No one knew we would have a revolution and be able to discuss such questions on an international level," said Irina Vakor, a specialist at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, which has 18 Malevich works in its collection. Russia's largest Malevich collection is at the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg. Malevich, born in 1878, invented an art movement he called Suprematism, which contained no references to the natural world and depicted geometric shapes and planes of color on white backgrounds. He is perhaps best known for a painting that is often regarded as the logical end of abstract art, his "Suprematist Composition: White on White," a white square on a white field. For 20 years, Bykova had tried unsuccessfully to get Soviet officials to help her recover works that Malevich had left in Germany in 1927. But it was not until she met Toussaint that her quest went international. While investigating another case, Toussaint had come across information about the Malevich works. After learning of Bykova's efforts and contacting her in Ulyanovsk, he traveled through Russia, Ukraine and Poland to find other Malevich descendants, he said. Eventually they came together to pursue the case. Toussaint put them in touch with a New York attorney, who first contacted the Museum of Modern Art in September. The Malevich works, which escaped two totalitarian regimes, had been "lost" to the family since 1927 when Malevich had taken 70 paintings and other works to an exhibition in Berlin. Returning to the Soviet Union, Malevich left the works in the care of Hugo Haring, a Berlin architect. In 1930, Haring gave the works to the then Provinzialmuseum in Hannover, where museum director Alexander Dorner hid them from the Nazis who were confiscating art they considered "degenerate." Malevich, who was not allowed to leave the Soviet Union, died in St. Petersburg in 1935, by which time the Soviets had denounced his art. The same year, the then director of New York's Museum of Modern Art, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., visited Germany and obtained a group of Malevich works from Dorner. The Museum of Modern Art has acknowledged that many of the works were obtained as loans but it questions whether the artist intended that the works go to his descendants. The descendants' attorney, Gilbert S. Edelson, declined to discuss the case. But Toussaint said that a document in the State Archives in Hannover shows that Dorner gave the works to Barr as an extended loan, stipulating they should be returned should Malevich's heirs demand it. According to a written statement from the Museum of Modern Art, Barr purchased four Malevich works and acquired a group of paintings and drawings as a loan. The museum did not return the loaned works to protect them from the Nazis, the statement says. The museum entered the loaned works into its permanent collection in 1963, after "almost 30 years had passed without any claims coming forward for the Malevich works on extended loan." The museum states that the loss of the Malevich works would "do irreparable damage to our viewers' understanding of 20th-century creativity" and that its rights are "superior to those of other individuals or institutions." Albert Elsen, who teaches art law at Stanford University in California, said the case, first reported late last year in the American magazine ARTNews, boils down to a simple question of ownership. "The fact that a museum may have had in its custody for 30, 40 or 50 years the works of a given artist doesn't necessarily mean that it owns them," he said. Russian art specialists are not sympathetic to the Malevich descendants."Most of them are very distant relatives," said Vakor of the Tretyakov. "They are interested in material gains." Indeed, most of the relatives are poor. Bykova herself told ARTNews that she does not want the pictures in her possession but that "I and my family need some financial support for life." Reached by telephone, Bykova was reluctant to discuss the case, which is now being fought halfway around the world from the two-room apartment she shares with her son in Ulyanovsk. She said only that she believed her grandfather had not forgotten his works abroad. "Until the very end he was very worried about the fate of his paintings," she said.