Ninety year-old friend of Malévich flees to Holland and scandal erupts over supposed smuggled sales to the Gmurszinska Gallery

Customs at Moscow airport impound suitcases full of papers about the Avant-garde


Nikolai Khardzjiev is ninety years old. He says that Moscow has become so frightening that he fears for his life, which is why he and his wife have fled to Holland, invited by the Slavic Institute of Amsterdam University. Mr Khardzjiev is also one of Russia’s most important art critics, partly because he was a member of the heroic—and most valuable—phase of Russian art, the Avant-garde, dating from the years immediately before the Revolution and the 1920s. He was a close friend of artists like Malévich and Lissitsky whose works are now worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in the West and even inside Russia.

He is now accused of a major smuggling operation. At the end of April the daily newspaper Izvestia published a series of articles saying that Mr Khardzjiev had smuggled fifty works from his own collection to the West. He had also supposedly tried to smuggle out three suitcases of literary manuscripts, poems, letters and other documents relating to the Soviet Avant-garde about which he has published extensively. Customs at Moscow’s Sheremetyev airport impounded the suitcases.

Two documents were found in them relating to the sale of six works by Malévich to Christina Bscher the present owner of the prestigious Gmurzynska Gallery in Cologne, whose considerable fortunes are based on having built up the famous Russian art collection of Aachen chocolate millionaire, Peter Ludwig.

One of the documents apparently says that Christina Bscher would hand over a cheque for $2.5 million to Mr Khardzjiev and the other contains a contractual promise that Mr Khardzjiev would give Mrs Bscher six works by “Kaz[imir]. M. [alévich]” on permanent loan.

Director of the Russian State Archives, Natalia Volkova, has authenticated the contents of the suitcases and says, “As far as I know, the six works by Malévich are no longer in Russia”. She does not know which works they might be and, indeed, almost noone can even guess at this, as Mr Khardzjiev was famously misanthropic and had grown even more eccentric and defensive in old age.

The Art Newspaper talked to one of the few people to have known him well, the art critic and collector Viktor Kholodkov, now living in the US. He said that Mr Khardzjiev had a great number of Avant-garde works on display in his Moscow apartment, but mainly of personal importance. However, he may have kept the best hidden, and Malévich’s “Red Square” may have been among these. When asked whether Mr Khardzjiev had reason to fear for his safety, Mr Kholodkov said that the almost legendary fame of Mr Khardzjiev’s association with the Avant-garde made him a potential target.

Mr Kholodkov said that it was unfortunate that the Customs had intercepted the archival material which, in his opinion, might end up in the State archive but would probably still be sold off illegally and piecemeal by the employees.

The Art Newspaper also contacted Mr Rakitin, the well known expert on the Soviet Avant-garde now living in Cologne who advises the Gmurszinska Gallery. He denied ever having seen in the collection or of having had anything to do with Mr Khardzjiev in recent times.