Malévich heirs stake claim on MoMA works

The New York museum insists it has sound title


According to a report from the Russian information agency ITAR-TASS, relatives of Kazimir Malévich have filed a law suit claiming, either the return of his paintings currently held by New York's Museum of Modern Art, to which, as they see it, they are entitled as his heirs, or, alternatively, to receive a substantial sum for granting permission for the works to remain exhibited. The suit, which has been brought by nineteen of Malévich's relatives, stresses that the museum acquired some sixteen of the artist's works illegally.

For its part, the museum's management has categorically refused to hand the pictures over as it considers that the museum has perfectly good title to them. In an interview with a correspondent from ITAR-TASS, a spokesman for the museum described the way in which the museum came to acquire Malévich's pictures as follows.

In 1927, when Malévich was in Berlin, he asked a German architect, called Hugo Heiring, to look after some of them for him. Heiring subsequently gave them to the Director of Hanover's "Provincial Museum", Alexander Dorner, where they were to remain until 1936. The pictures found their way to New York's Museum of Modern Art after its former director, Alfred Barr, bought them for an exhibition called "Cubism and Abstract Art". In 1963 the museum officially listed Malévich's works as part of its collection. However, the artist's relatives insist that Dorner had no right whatsoever to dispose of the pictures. For its part, the museum management insists that Malévich never expressed any intention to pass his works on to his relatives after his death.

Nevertheless, according to the New York correspondent of ITAR-TASS, attorneys for the two sides have held a meeting, at which the question of possible financial compensation for the artist's relatives was considered.

It is likely that the case concerning Malévich's pictures will be the first in a number of similar law suits to be brought in the West, not only by Malévich's successors, but also by those of other famous Russian artists.

Malévich's pictures have also unexpectedly become the focus of attention in Sweden. The Swedish authorities are trying to unravel a complicated affair concerning two of the artist's pictures which a Russian restorer took there in the 1980s as part of a large art collection. The former Russian restorer appealed to Bjorn Hallstrem, a lecturer at the Stockholm High School of Art, for a valuation of several canvases which he had brought with him. The art historian established that two of them had been painted by Malévich, namely, "Musician" (c. 1914) and "Suprematism" (1915-1916). The pictures are valued at about SKr30 million (£2.4 million; $3.6 million) each. Bjorn Hallstrem charged SKr430,000 (£34,000; $51,600 for his expertise and gave one the pictures to an acquaintance, an art dealer, supposedly him to look after. The restorer is now refusing to pay Hallstrem the money. For his part, the art dealer is refusing to hand the work back, claiming that he bought it, although the deal is totally undocumented.

This apparently purely "Swedish" affair has particular interest in Russia, where there is speculation how Malévich's works could possibly have found their way into Sweden.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Malévich heirs claim back works'