A claim has been filed in US federal court in Washington, DC against the City of Amsterdam by the heirs of the 20th-century Russian artist Kazimir Malevich for 14 of the artist’s works. The heirs say these works are “in the wrongful possession” of the City at the Stedelijk Museum.
The paintings, said to be worth more than $150 million, are part of a collection of 84 works by Malevich which his heirs say is “the cornerstone of the Stedelijk” and draws “hundreds of thousands of people through the museum’s doors every year.” The 14 paintings that are being claimed were in the US on loan to the Guggenheim Museum in New York from May to September 2003 and then travelled to the Menil Collection in Houston. But all 84 of the Malevich works were taken in violation of international law by the City of Amsterdam through the Stedelijk, the heirs say.
In 1927, Malevich took more than 100 of his paintings, drawings, gouaches and other works to Berlin, where many were displayed at the prestigious Berliner Kunstausstellung, the complaint says. But the artist was unexpectedly called back to Leningrad, and he entrusted the works to friends.
Malevich died in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) in 1935 leaving his family destitute. At the time of his death, his art and name were “anathema in Stalinist Russia,” say his heirs. Some of the works were exhibited in Germany at the Landesmuseum in Hanover, but after the Nazi attacks against “degenerate” art, Alexander Dorner, the museum’s director, hid them in the basement, the heirs say. He then shipped some works to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York to be held on loan. When Dr Dorner died in the US, he left two other works to the Busch-Reisinger Museum at Harvard, to be held for their “rightful owners.” In 1999, both MoMA and the Busch-Reisinger amicably resolved claims from the Malevich heirs.
But according to the heirs, Dorner sent the remaining works to the German architect Hugo Häring. In 1956 after the director of the Stedelijk had made repeated visits to see the Malevich paintings, Häring agreed to loan them to the Dutch museum. Later, the works were offered for sale to the City, the heirs say. The heirs further allege that although the Stedelijk director was fully aware that Häring did not own the Malevich paintings, the City nevertheless proceeded to conspire with Häring’s brother-in-law to illegally “acquire” them, for a pittance.
The City of Amsterdam abruptly cut off talks with the heirs at the end of 2001, saying it would not return the works or try to resolve the claims in any other way, the heirs say.
After the fall of the Iron Curtain, the Malevich heirs were reunited, and for several years have sought to recover the works from institutions around the world.
As a jurisdictional basis, the heirs are citing an alleged violation of international law by the City of Amsterdam, and the recent presence of the works in the US in connection with a commercial activity. This creates an exception to the US Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act which otherwise protects foreign sovereigns from being sued in US courts, the heirs say.
The heirs are represented by attorneys Lawrence W. Kaye and Howard Spiegler, of the firm Herrick, Feinstein LLP, New York. According to their lawyer, they are also contemplating taking action against the City of Amsterdam for the Malevich works that were not exhibited in the US.