While the exhibition Cubism at the Centre Pompidou, bringing together an unprecedented number of works by Picasso, Braque, Léger and other great names of the art of the Twentieth century, breaks records in attendance, organizers are faced with a controversy worthy of a detective novel. The museum of the Russian city of Rostov Veliki ensures that a painting, now hanging in the halls of Beaubourg, it has been stolen, there are a half-century. It is Samovar of Kasimir Malevich, painted in Moscow in 1913, today inscribed in the catalogue of the Museum of Modern Art New York (MoMA). On 6 November, The Journal of the Arts has published an article revealing that the Russian museum accused the Centre Pompidou to exhibit Malevich’s stolen.

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” In 1990-1991… Svetlana Jafarova has concluded, that the painting listed in the catalogue of the museum as the work of Malevich, is false, while the dating of the second half of the Twentieth century ”

Sergei Sazonov, deputy director of the Museum of the Kremlin in Rostov

The history of this painting, estimated between 13 and 18 million euros by the experts Eric Schoeller and Jean Minguet, would be fantastic. The MoMA has recreated a part of the course of the canvas. Painted in 1913, the painting is exhibited in Saint-Petersburg, Paris, or Moscow before being bought to the painter by the Office of the commissioner of soviet Education in the 1920s. In 1922, he was transferred to the museum of Rostov Veliki. In the operating instructions manual of the american institution, the Samovar reappears fifty years later, in 1972, in the halls of a london auction of Sotheby s. In 1977, it is recorded in the collection of israeli businessman Meshulam Riklis. The MoMa, in fact, then the acquisition in 1983.

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This course is, however, a big unknown: by what hands is placed the canvas, between 1922 and 1972? How the Samovar Rostov was caught up in the auction rooms of Sotheby’s in London? On the Russian side, several hypotheses have been advanced for these years not filled in. According to Andrei Sarabianov, director of the Avant-Garde Center of the Jewish Museum in Moscow, it is necessary to seek the explanation in the chaos that reigned in the artistic institutions after the Revolution. In the early 1920s, hundreds of works of art of the Russian avant-garde have been distributed by the young soviet government to small regional museums in the framework of the policy of “democratization of culture”, initiated by the People’s commissar Anatoly Lunacharsky, and Wassily Kandinsky. “The canvas has been transferred to the museum of Rostov region by the decree of the Bureau of museums of the People’s Commissariat for education in 1922,” says Sergei Sazonov, deputy director of the museum of the Kremlin in Rostov.

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But this current artistic passion little the conservatives, according to Andrei Sarabianov. And the situation worsens when the authorities, with the ascent of Stalin to power in 1924, to consider this art as “bourgeois” and “counter-revolutionary”. In the footsteps of several works are lost in the 1940’s and 1950’s.

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According to him, “of the paintings of Kandinsky, Malevich, or Chagall were able to be discarded in the trash or used as a fuel during these dark years”. Others were able to be appropriated. With the opening of the USSR to foreign tourists in the 1960s, “the smuggling of cultural property is widespread”. And according to Andrei Sarabianov, the phenomenon takes on alarming proportions at the time of Perestroika and after the collapse of the soviet regime in 1991.

The “Samovar” museum of Rostov (on the left) and that of the MoMA. Rue des Archives, and MoMA

The story gets more complicated when you realise that a painting titled Samovar and attributed to Malevich during the years is presented in the museum of the Kremlin of Rostov. There is even a photo of the table circulated by the press agencies. No need to be an expert to identify the similarities between the canvas and us, and that which is found in Russia. Not needed, not more, to a discerning eye to notice that it is not of the same paintings. If one of them is a copy of the other, it is of very poor quality.

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“The ministry and the Kremlin of Rostov are currently in the process of reviewing all items”

Kirill Rybak, advisor to the minister of Culture of the Russian

In Russia, a study was conducted almost twenty years. “In 1990-1991, in the context of the preparation of a series of exhibitions abroad, the researcher at the Russian Institute for cultural research Moscow, Svetlana Jafarova, concluded that the painting listed in the catalogue of the museum as the work of Malevich, is a fake, dating from the second half of the Twentieth century. The expertise of this table, executed jointly by the Russian Museum of Saint Petersburg , the Institute of geochronology and geology precambrian and the State Institute of conservation of the heritage of Moscow, “confirmed in 2017 the assumption of Svetlana Jafarova,” says Sergei Sazonov. According to the deputy director of the museum of Rostov, the presence of this forgery in the collection would sign the crime. According to him, “the table authentic Rostov has been stolen and replaced by a fake one around 1960, not without the complicity of some members of the staff of the museum”.

the cartel of The table at the Centre Pompidou. Nikita Dmitriev

so Here is the situation, prior to the inauguration of the exhibition of the centre Pompidou. On the one hand the Samovar of the MoMA, with questions on its origin, the other of Rostov with serious doubts about its quality. Yet no one among the Russian speakers of the Figaro was not able to explain why the case, known to the museum community, Russian for several years, re-emerged today.

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According to Kirill Rybak, adviser to the minister of the Russian Culture, the government is well aware of the situation. It also ensures that “the MoMA and the Centre Georges Pompidou, cannot ignore the questions raised”. In February 1996, the american magazine Art News had referred to research conducted in Russia by Svetlana Jafarova, in an article entitled Fake. The betrayal of the R”Russian avant-garde , signed by the art historian Konstantin Akinsha. Sergei Sazonov ensures that the museum of Rostov has never been contacted by the MoMA on the topic of Samovar , which is, in his opinion, “a violation of the Code of ethics of the international Council of museums”.

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But for now, no official action has been taken by Russia against the museums of paris and new york. “The ministry and the Kremlin are currently in the process of reviewing all items”, we are told at the cabinet of the ministry of Culture. Department has filed “a complaint with the prosecutor general of Russia,” says Sergei Sazonov, the deputy director of the museum of Rostov.

at the same time, in Paris, it is very cautious. “The Russians have never addressed the Pompidou Center no notification about Samovar “, says one to the national Museum of modern art. “The commissioner of the exhibition, Brigitte Leal was not in possession of information on the provenance tests that work”, still provides the Centre Pompidou in Figaro . On the cartel of the array exposed at Beaubourg, the name of the museum of Rostov does not appear, although it is indicated in the catalogue of the MoMA.

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In London, the representatives of Sotheby’s, contacted, brick in the silence. The auction house is probably in possession of crucial information, since it is in his records that appeared for the first time the Samovar of the MoMA on the western market. In regard to the direction of the american museum, she has, for the moment, not want to answer the questions of Figaro .