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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Black Square Taken Off the Block

APStetsyura showing off the "Black Square" last month. Also pictured are Malevich's "Self-Portrait" and "Portrait of the Artist's Wife."
Putting a dampener on months of anticipation in the Russian art world, the Culture Ministry whisked a famous painting of a plain black square from under the noses of potential bidders at an auction over the weekend, saying it was too precious to sell.

The "Black Square" by Kazimir Malevich, one of the leading avant-garde artists of the last century, was meant to be the star attraction of a sell-off of bankrupted Inkombank's extensive art collection at the Gelos auction house on Saturday. But as preparations mounted for the auction, where the painting was expected to sell for millions of dollars, the Culture Ministry declared the work a state cultural treasure and ordered it removed from the auction list, according to a ministry statement released Saturday.

"The ministry decided to keep this [painting] for the state," ministry official Anatoly Vilkov said, The Associated Press reported.

The painting remained Saturday at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, where it had been sent for valuation before the auction, Gelos was quoted by AP as saying.

In place of the original black square, Gelos displayed a copy of the painting center stage during Saturday's event.

The Culture Ministry's intervention was not entirely unexpected.

Since Inkombank went bankrupt after the 1998 financial crisis, the ministry has kept a close eye on the bank's art collection.

At one stage, the committee of creditors that was set up to oversee the sale of Inkombank's property suggested giving the "Black Square" to the state as a way of writing off $20 million of debt, according to Oleg Stetsyura, economic adviser at Gelos.

But this was not allowed under Russian bankruptcy law, which dictates that the art collection must be sold at auction, so the idea never got off the ground, Stetsyura said.

In its statement, the Culture Ministry said it has the right of first purchase of the painting, although it was unclear how much it would have to pay or what it planned to do with it.

Stetsyura could not be reached for comment Sunday.

In an Ekho Moskvy radio interview Saturday, Alexander Yesin, external manager of Inkombank who oversees its art collection, said he did not exclude the possibility of handing over the "Black Square" to a state museum.

"I would be glad if the painting was owned by the state as it is national property," he told Interfax. "It wouldn't be desirable for the 'Black Square' to end up in a private collection."

Yesin added that talks will now be held between the Culture Ministry, the external management of Inkombank and the committee of creditors to work out what is to be done with the painting, Interfax said.

Two Malevich works were, however, sold at Saturday's auction. One titled "Self-Portrait" went for $600,000, and "Portrait of the Artist's Wife" was sold for $90,000, Itar-Tass reported.

The paintings were bought by the Museum of Modern Arts of the Russian Academy of Arts, whose president is Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov's favorite sculptor, Zurab Tsereteli, Interfax reported.

Tsereteli said the purchases were funded out of the museum's own budget and that its latest acquisitions would be exhibited to the public as early as next month, Interfax said Sunday.

He also said the museum would be ready to buy the "Black Square" if it ever was brought under the hammer because "it is history ... and should remain in a Russian museum."