Stolen Paintings Find Way Home

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ST. PETERSBURG — A decadelong struggle over seven stolen drawings that left egg on the faces of both Russian and French officials is finally over.

Though the drawings by avant-garde artist Pavel Filonov are not particularly valuable, their return puts an end to one of the most complex and incredible art-theft sagas since World War II and raises questions about the extent of France’s guilt for holding onto stolen art.

Culture Minister Mikhail Svidkoi returned triumphant from Paris last weekend with the seven black-and-white drawings dating from the years just after the 1917 Revolution.

"We are very grateful to the French Culture Ministry and the Pompidou for deciding to return to Russia what belongs here," said Anatoly Vilkov, head of the Culture Ministry’s department for preserving cultural valuables.

"The return of the drawings is a manifestation of fulfilling a high moral duty, and we hope that other museums will follow our example," Pompidou Center president Jean-Jacques Ailliagon said in a statement.

Filonov (1882-1941) was one of the leaders in Russia’s avant-garde movement and is well-known for his use of the analytical art style. He welcomed the 1917 Bolshevik seizure of power, and flourished under the new regime in the 1920s. With the rise of socialist realism in the 1930s, however, he fell into disfavor, obscurity and poverty.

Filonov never sold any of his works. Upon his death in 1941 during the Blockade of Leningrad, he be-queathed them all to his sister, Yelena Glebova who, in turn, donated them to the Russian Museum.

Therefore, the appearance of seven of those drawings in France came as quite a surprise.

The Culture Ministry believes the drawings were switched by high-ranking Russian Museum officials with finely executed copies between 1978 and 1981.

In 1983 Pompidou bought the authentic drawings for 62,500 French francs (about $11,000 at the time) from a Paris antique dealer.

The crime was only discovered in 1985 when a Russian Museum art historian saw a Pompidou catalog with photos of the stolen drawings. After careful inspection she concluded that the drawings in the museum’s collection were forgeries.

Embarrassed museum officials hushed up the theft, and a criminal investigation was only initiated in 1991. However, repeated requests from the Russians for the French Culture Ministry to look into the matter went unheeded throughout the 1990s.

Then along came Nikolas Iljine, the European representative of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. The art connoisseur saw that the Russian efforts had stalled and decided last year to hire a lawyer to prod the French government.

On July 24, Iljine’s efforts paid off when French Culture Minister Catherine Tasca acknowledged that the paintings belonged to Russia and signed a decree revoking French ownership rights.

While the fight for the drawings has ended, the scandal surrounding the theft may not be completely over. Documents shown to The Moscow Times and confirmed by the Culture Ministry indicate that as early as 1993 French officials knew the Filonov works were stolen but refused to turn them over. According to the documents, former Pompidou director Germain Viatte brought the drawings to St. Petersburg in September 1993 to show them to the museum officials for expert advice on their authenticity. The artwork was confirmed as real by the museum and then flown back to France in a diplomatic pouch the same day.

"The French, of course, violated Russian law by taking cultural valuables, especially stolen ones, out of the country in 1993," said Vilkov.

Russian Museum director Gusev, who was among the experts who examined the drawings, defended the museum’s decision to let the artwork return to France.

"We had no proof that the French had violated Russian law," he said.

But, he added, the important issue now for the museum is not what happened in 1993 but what has happened now — that the drawings are finally back home.