Museums Switzerland

Swiss museum settles Malevich claim

Most works to remain at the Kunstmuseum Basel, while one gouache is transferred to the artist’s heirs

Malevich's Landscape with Red Houses was returned to the artist's heirs

A settlement has found common ground between a Swiss museum and claimants to art, allowing some of the art to remain on public display. In an agreement announced on 20 January, the Kunstmuseum Basel transferred a work in gouache by Kazimir Malevich to the artist’s heirs, in a settlement that leaves a second gouache and about 60 drawings by Malevich at the museum. The agreement settles all questions as to title to the Malevich works in question.

In June 1927, the Russian abstract artist Malevich, then living in Berlin, was unexpectedly called back by Stalin to Soviet Leningrad, now St Petersburg. He left more than 100 of his art works in Berlin with acquaintances, but never returned.

In 2010, the artist’s heirs registered a claim with the museum for the two gouaches and the drawings. The claim never reached the courts. The museum maintains that it acquired the Malevich works “honorably and acquired good title pursuant to Swiss law”, a statement issued by both parties after the settlement says. The settlement will keep Malevich’s works on public display, acknowledge the historical circumstances that prevented his return to Germany, respect the heirs’ legacy, and allow the museum to comply with the code of ethics of the International Council of Museums, the statement says.

The museum is transferring the gouache Landscape with Red Houses, which it bought from Marlborough Fine Art in London in 1964, to the heirs. The work was among those left in Berlin. The items that will stay at the museum include a 1969 donation by Marguerite Arp-Hagenbach of original illustrations for Malevich’s 1927 book Die gegenstandslose Welt and the gouache The Washing Woman, donated in 1995 by Franz Meyer, the former director of the museum, who bought it at auction in 1964.

The heirs, who claim that Melevich’s acquaintances in Berlin had no right to transfer or sell the art, have claimed other works left in Berlin by Malevich, from institutions including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and the Busch-Reisinger Museum at Harvard University. All claims have ended in settlements.

Larry Kaye, the heirs’ lawyer, says: “the heirs are committed to recovering Malevich’s legacy. Wherever they find works by the artist which they believe they are entitled to recover, they will assert their rights and try to resolve the claim.”

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