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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Murky Trail Behind Rediscovered Maleviches

NEW YORK -- On May 13 the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York will open a gleaming exhibition of paintings and drawings by Kasimir Malevich, a master of the Russian avant-garde and a seminal figure in modern art.

This show will feature important works never seen in the West. There will be an elegant dinner and a flurry of events, all celebrating the bold spirit of an artist who was also a prominent victim of Stalinist repression.

But this exhibition also alludes to another saga of the avant-garde, one about which the Guggenheim has had much less to say.

What the museum calls the "newly rediscovered" paintings at the center of its show were once the treasure of Nikolai Khardzhiyev, a Russian critic who befriended leading members of the avant-garde as a young man and secretly preserved their art, manuscripts and memoirs long after such work was banned as subversively bourgeois.

The story of Khardzhiyev's collection is an art-world parable, setting the obsession of a frail and complicated old man against the forces of a market in which a single Malevich oil can command $15 million or more.

When the 90-year-old scholar and his wife finally left Moscow in 1993, having survived the collapse of the Soviet system, they hoped to finish their lives in peace and find a suitable home for their collection of more than 1,000 pieces.

Instead, Khardzhiyev died in Amsterdam less than three years later, embittered and alone. His wife had died in a mysterious fall. An out-of-work Russian actor to whom they entrusted their estate took a $5 million payoff and disappeared.

Though Khardzhiyev wanted his collection preserved, many of the best pieces were sold to wealthy collectors, earning millions in profits for a pair of European art dealers whom the couple had come to despise. Nearly half of his precious literary archive was seized by Russian customs inspectors as it was smuggled out of Moscow; the rest now sits in a museum basement in Amsterdam.

"It is as though he spent his entire life constructing this unique, magnificent building and then it was just destroyed," said Alexandra Shatskikh, a Russian art historian who has studied Khardzhiyev's archive. "There was almost nothing left but walls and a foundation."

For most of Khardzhiyev's life, his art was a source of peril, not wealth.

Born in Ukraine in 1903, he studied law before moving to Leningrad, where he met many of the painters and writers who had ventured from European modernism into new realms of abstraction. Among them was Malevich, who was working to distill a nonrepresentational art of "pure sensation" that he called Suprematism.

Khardzhiyev made an impression as a brilliant young critic of this new art and literature. "He saw everything," said a friend, novelist Andrei Sergeyev. "It was an open book to him."

But by the late 1920s the Soviet authorities were growing impatient with the avant-garde. Malevich was jailed for several months in 1930 and died in 1935, ostracized by a state that had declared Socialist Realism the only acceptable art form. The absurdist writer Daniil Kharms, Khardzhiyev's cherished friend, was arrested by the secret police in 1931 and later died in a prison hospital.

Khardzhiyev survived, hiding his passions and holding to the fringes of the cultural bureaucracy. He wrote guardedly and published little. Hoping to write a history of the Russian Futurist movement, he began to gather the avant-garde's literary remains: manuscripts, memoirs, fragments of all sorts.

The paintings he collected had little commercial value in that closed, fearful society. Still, at least a few relatives of artists later accused him of failing to return borrowed works.

What saved him from arrest may have been his love for Vladimir Mayakovsky, Stalin's favorite poet. After helping to edit Mayakovsky's collected works, Khardzhiyev was admitted to the Soviet writers' union in 1941.

During the Khrushchev thaw that began in 1956, Khardzhiyev dared to organize the first public shows of avant-garde art since Stalin's terror. He never openly criticized the government, but his friends included luminous outcasts like the poet Anna Akhmatova, and there was no question of his hate for the Soviet state.

"He always wanted to flee," Sergeyev said.

Several things held him back. In 1953 he married for the second time, to a sculptor, Lydia Chaga. He spent endless hours in the state archives, struggling vainly to produce a definitive collection of the poetry of Velimir Khlebnikov. Then there was Khardzhiyev's own archive, freighted with the sacrifices of its creators and his own unfulfilled promise.

Some friends thought he seemed to harden as his collection grew. Paintings that once covered his walls were hidden away. His charm also became less visible, and he quarreled with friends. "He could be dogmatic even about tea," one said.

Letters found among his papers suggest he began trying to escape the Soviet Union in the mid-1970s, but was disappointed by a Swedish scholar, Bengt Jangfeldt, to whom he turned for help. Jangfeldt confirmed in an interview that he had received four Malevich oils from Khardzhiyev and later refused to return them. But he said they were a gift unrelated to the critic's efforts to emigrate.

By the time Khardzhiyev and his wife left Moscow, the state that tormented him had collapsed. Their conduit was a Dutch academic, Willem Weststeijn, who approached Khardzhiyev in 1992 with an invitation to visit the University of Amsterdam. Khardzhiyev proposed instead that he move, and suggested he might leave his archive to that university.

Weststeijn had no idea how to get the collection out of Russia, but soon found someone who did in Krystyna Gmurzynska, an art dealer whose gallery in Cologne, Germany, was a powerful force in the competitive market for avant-garde art.

Gmurzynska was stunned by what she found in the Khardzhiyev's tiny apartment: rare oils, gouaches and drawings by Malevich; paintings by Pavel Filonov, Mikhail Larionov, Natalya Goncharova and Olga Rozanova; important drawings by El Lissitzky. Along with the vast literary archive, there were about 1,350 artworks, all unquestionably authentic in a market plagued by forgeries and fakes.

The dealer said she entered into an arrangement with the couple only after Chaga, Khardzhiyev's wife, "cried and asked for our help." But the deal was hardly charitable. According to papers seized in Moscow, Gmurzynska and her partner, Rastorfer, were to give Khardzhiyev and his wife $2.5 million to resettle in Amsterdam. In return, the dealers would receive six Malevich works that art experts had valued at 10 times that amount or more.

After the agreement came to light in 1994, Gmurzynska and Rastorfer denied taking part in the smuggling. But they would not say how the trove was moved, only that they advanced the couple money to relocate in November 1993 and completed the purchase of the art after it left Russia.

The Khardzhiyevs told a very different story. The two art dealers not only took charge of moving their belongings, they said, but also helped to pack and carry away suitcases full of art.

"Even this lady Gmurzynska was carrying very heavy valises," Khardzhiyev told a Russian journalist, Konstantin Akinsha, who interviewed him in Amsterdam two years later. "I was impressed by her womanly strength."

Relations between the critic and the dealers soon deteriorated. The Khardzhiyevs were put up at a Hilton hotel in Amsterdam and, they complained, abandoned.

They eventually moved into a row house near the hotel. But Khardzhiyev grew desperate waiting for his archive and was disconsolate when he learned in February 1994 that almost half of it had been seized at Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow. He became convinced that other manuscripts and books had been stolen as well.

A series of Russian speakers recruited to care for the couple quit or were fired. Last in the parade was Boris Abarov, a former Russian actor who won their confidence and placed a Dutch friend as their business adviser.

In July 1995 Abarov and this adviser helped Khardzhiyev prepare a will providing for a cultural foundation in the couple's name and making Abarov their sole heir. (The couple had no children.)

Chaga died four months later. Abarov said she fell down the steep stairs of the couple's home and hit her head. But a close friend of Chaga, Anna Gourevich, challenged that account. In a statement to the Dutch authorities she cited contradictions in Abarov's version of events, and said Chaga had described repeated fights with Abarov over his efforts to control the couple's finances.

The police investigated briefly, but filed no charges. Abarov, who has denied wrongdoing, could not be reached.

A friend of Khardzhiyev, Vadim Kozovoi, said he arrived in Amsterdam in March 1996 to find him confined to bed, complaining about Abarov and demanding to change his will. He said Abarov threw him out of the house.

After Khardzhiyev's death three months later, Abarov changed the bylaws of the Khardzhiyev-Chaga foundation in Amsterdam to allow the sale of more art. Before the Dutch authorities began investigating a year later, the foundation negotiated new sales of at least $12.5 million with the Gmurzynska gallery for four Malevich paintings and drawings by Lissitzky.

During the same period, according to an art expert familiar with the case who spoke on condition of anonymity, several important Malevich letters and manuscripts, apparently from Khardzhiyev's collection, quietly went on sale in Europe.

Finally, as allegations of improprieties appeared in De Volkskrant, the Dutch newspaper, Abarov negotiated with the couple's executor to receive $5 million for renouncing further claims on the estate. Then he disappeared.

Gmurzynska initially had little trouble selling Khardzhiyev's art, placing Malevich oils with cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder and German industrialist Peter Ludwig. But in an already turbulent avant-garde market, art experts said, the public scandals in Russia and the Netherlands cast a shadow over the collection.

Negotiations between those two governments over the fate of the art and archive dragged on, and in an internal memorandum, Russia's security chief at the time, Vladimir Putin, suggested that he would continue to pursue a criminal inquiry into the alleged smuggling.

"We regard it as essential to further solve the problems connected with the Khardzhiyev collection," wrote Putin, according to a copy of the 1998 memorandum. "Cultural treasures which are illegally taken from the territory of the Russian Federation are subject to return."

But Gmurzynska and Rastorfer continued to cultivate close ties with Russian cultural officials who, despite the view of Putin's security services, voiced support for Gmurzynska and her gallery. At a ceremony in Bonn in June, Gmurzynska received a certificate of gratitude from the Russian culture minister, Mikhail Shvydkoi, for her contributions to Russian culture.

Finally, the dealers began working with the European representative of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, Nicholas Iljine, on an exhibition of works from Malevich's Suprematist period that would include many of the Khardzhiyev paintings.

In Khardzhiyev's last interview, in December 1995, he said Iljine approached him on behalf of the Russian authorities, trying to negotiate the return of some of part of his archive. Khardzhiyev said he later concluded that Iljine "was working for Gmurzynska and we stopped letting him in."

Iljine, who did not join the Guggenheim until 1996, denied that he ever worked for Gmurzynska. He said he had merely sought to help friends in the Culture Ministry "calm down some wild cops" in the security services.

The director of the Guggenheim, Thomas Krens, declined to discuss the Khardzhiyev case. The guest curator of the exhibition, Matthew Drutt, said he had agreed to work on it only after being assured that there were no outstanding legal claims to the paintings.

"I wasn't trying to wash provenance," said Drutt, who is curator of the Menil Collection in Houston. "I was only trying to honor Khardzhiyev's ultimate intention, which was to bring this work to a broader public."