Stedelijk returns five Malevich works to artist’s heirs

Museum retains 79 works on long-term loan from the City of Amsterdam


Boston. The dispute between the City of Amsterdam and heirs of the 20th-century Russian artist Kazimir Malevich over ownership of 84 works by the artist at the city-owned Stedelijk Museum has been amicably settled, the parties announced on 24 April. Five paintings will go to Malevich’s descendants, and the rest will remain with the City, which has given them to the Stedelijk on a long term loan. The heirs said the resolution gives each party a representative portion of Malevich’s work.

In 2003 the heirs sued Amsterdam in federal court in New York, asserting that the museum had wrongfully taken the Malevich works in violation of international law years before. The suit claimed ownership of 14 works loaned by the Stedelijk to two US museums in 2003-04, but the settlement covers the Stedelijk’s entire Malevich collection.

In 1927, Malevich entrusted more than 100 of his works to friends in Berlin when he was unexpectedly called back to Leningrad (now St Petersburg). He never returned and the art passed into the possession of the German architect Hugo Häring, who sold it to the Stedelijk in 1958. The heirs asserted that the museum wrongfully acquired the art from Mr Häring, knowing that he was a mere custodian, and that he was not entitled to sell it. The City said it had properly acquired the art.

An important question in the case was whether the heirs could sue Amsterdam under an exception to the Foreign Sov­ereign Immunities Act, which normally gives foreign sovereign entities immunity from lawsuit in US courts.

The heirs successfully argued that the suit could proceed because the City had conducted a commercial activity in the US when it exhibited the works at US museums, and because the disputed works were present in the US in connection with that activity.