Russia History Modern Missing Russian Paintings

Missing Russian Paintings

On 3 November 2008, Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematist Composition (1916) was sold at a Sotheby’s auction to an anonymous bidder for $60 million. The current record prices for Russian art make it tantalising to speculate about the fates of Russian paintings which are currently lost or have gone missing over the past hundred years... Where are they now?

In 1876, Russian Realist painter Nikolai Ge retired to a farm called Ivanovsky near the small village of Pliski in the Ukraine. After he died there in 1894, his son Nikolai took many of his father’s works to Europe, where they were bequeathed in 1938 to his Swiss benefactress, Béatrice de Watteville. She owned a chateau near Geneva, but nothing was found there after her death in 1952.

In the mid-1970s, Swiss collector Christophe Bollman spotted a series of unsigned charcoal drawings lying on the pavement at a flea market in Geneva. He bought them for a hundred Swiss francs and later established that they were Ge’s sketches for the Passions of Christ and Leo Tolstoy’s Gospel in Brief. But the fate of the artist’s other works, including The Crucifixion (1894), is unknown. In December 2011, Nikolai Ge’s painting Bay in Livorno sold at MacDougall’s Russian Art Auctions for $71,978 (£46,140).

Vera Khlebnikova was the younger sister of Futurist poet Velimir Khlebnikov and later married avant-garde artist Pyotr Miturich. From 1913 to 1916, she studied at private art academies in Florence, where she painted Symbolist compositions and Pointillist landscapes. In 1916, at the height of the First World WarVera decided to return to Russia. She left the majority of the works she had created since 1913 in the hands of friends, hoping to one day return and collect them. But the 1917 revolution intervened and now all trace of her paintings has been lost.

In 1927, Kazimir Malevich visited Poland and Germany, bringing a large collection of works for a one-man show in Warsaw and the Große Berliner Kunstausstellung in Berlin. While he was in Germany, his wife Natalia wrote to him that his fellow artists were being arrested in Russia and that he should remain in Europe with his pictures. But Malevich was unable to extend his German visa and returned to the Soviet Union on 5 June 1927, dying of cancer eight years later.

Leaving Germany and still hoping to return to the West one day, Malevich left his works in the hands of a group of friends – Hans Richter (artist), Alexander Dorner (director of the Landesmuseum in Hanover) and Hugo Häring (architect with a Russian wife). The collection was kept first by Alexander Dorner and then, after he emigrated in 1937, by Hugo Häring. Shortly after Häring died in 1958, his heirs sold the collection of eighty-four works, including thirty paintings, to the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam for $29,000.

But not all of the works left by Malevich in Germany found their way into the Stedelijk Museum. By the mid-1950s, twelve of the paintings had gone missing. At least two works were sold with Malevich’s permission from the Berlin exhibition of 1927, while others were not returned after being shown in Berlin and Vienna in 1930. The subsequent fate of these twelve Malevich paintings is unknown.

The life of Alexander Shenderov was also typical of a Soviet artist in the twentieth century. He was arrested in 1934 and sentenced to two years of forced labour, digging the Moscow-Volga Canal. After his release, he fought in the Second World War, while his native city of Rostov-on-Don was occupied by the Nazis.

When Shenderov returned home in 1944, he found that the entire contents of his studio had been expropriated and sent to Germany. None of his paintings was ever recovered. Alexander Shenderov’s By the Mirror was valued between £5,000 ($7,800) and £7,000 ($11,000) at MacDougall’s Russian Art Auctions in May 2012.

Vasily Shukhayev suffered a similar fate. In 1920, he made a daring escape from Bolshevik Russia by walking across the frozen sea to Kuokkala in Finland. Shukhayev lived and worked in Paris from 1921 until 1935, when he decided to return to the Soviet Union. Back in Russia, the artist was accused of espionage and sentenced to eight years in corrective labour camps from 1937 to 1945.

In 1947, Vasily Shukhayev was given permission to leave Magadan in the Far East and allowed to settle in Tbilisi. Two years later, while he was living in Georgia, many of his early works were stolen. The whereabouts of these paintings remain a mystery. In June 2012, Shukhayev’s Summer Scene in the Village sold at MacDougall’s Russian Art Auctions for $68,087 (£46,444).

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