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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Museum and Malevich Heirs Exchange Paintings and Cash




NEW YORK -- An unusual legal settlement will allow the Museum of Modern Art to retain 15 works by the Russian avant-garde artist Kazimir Malevich that it has held in safe keeping since 1935, in exchange for a cash payment to Malevich's 31 descendants.


In addition to the payment, believed to be $5 million, the descendants - grandchildren, nieces and nephews in Russia and Eastern Europe - will receive one painting, "Suprematist Composition," which dates from 1923-1925 and which experts say is worth about $10 million. The museum will keep six paintings and nine works on paper.


Representatives of the parties said they believed the agreement to be the first settlement between a major international museum and citizens of the former Soviet Union.


"It is rare that one can find an equitable solution to such a complicated problem, and I am delighted that we have found one where everyone wins,'' said Glenn D. Lowry, the museum's director.


The agreement with the museum concludes a saga that spans some of the greatest upheavals of the 20th century, including the formation of the Soviet Union and the rise of Nazism.


The works' long journey began in 1927, when the artist brought about 100 of his pieces from Leningrad to Berlin for an exhibit at the Berliner Ausstelung. When he returned to Leningrad, he left the pieces with architect Hugo Haering. But Malevich never returned to Germany, and died in Leningrad in 1935.


After the Berlin exhibit, Haering placed Malevich's art with Alexander Dorner, then director of the Landesmuseum in Hanover, Germany. When the Nazi government condemned non-traditional work like Malevich's as "degenerate,'' Dorner hid the pieces in the museum's basement.


They remained out of sight until 1935 when the Museum of Modern Art's founding director Alfred Barr brought some of Malevich's works to New York, and Dorner sent others to the New York museum, which has exhibited them ever since.


After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1993, Malevich's family began discussions with the museum about ownership of the works.


"The Museum of Modern Art can continue to share Malevich's revolutionary work with the public,'' Lowry said of the settlement reached Friday. "Malevich's descendants are compensated, and the artist will maintain the major public presence in the West that he strove for during his life.''


Lawrence M. Kaye, a lawyer for the heirs, said, "The family is very happy that this matter has been resolved in a way that acknowledges Malevich's legacy."


The family plans to establish and endow a foundation to support studies into the artist's work.


The Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, which boasts the largest foreign collection of paintings by Malevich, said this week it isn't planning to follow the New York museum's example and compensate the artist's heirs.


The Stedelijk Museum owns 36 works by the abstract painter which were purchased in 1958 and make up the largest collection outside Russia. A former curator, Wim Beeren, said the works are legal property of the Stedelijk and that he doesn't see why it would have to pay compensation.