December 1, 2022

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Russian troops looted art museums in Mariupol, city council says

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Ukrainian officials say Russian forces have seized more than 2,000 pieces of artwork from the besieged port city of Mariupol. They have been taken to Russian-occupied Donetsk, local channel TV7 reported.

The Mariupol City Council wrote in a Telegram message Thursday that Russian forces have raided the three local museums, including the Kuindzhi Art Museum, since the start of the invasion.

“The occupiers ‘liberated’ Mariupol from its historical and cultural heritage,” the city council wrote. “They stole and moved more than 2,000 unique exhibits from museums in Mariupol to Donetsk.”

Among the works taken was the Gospel of 1811 from the Venetian printing house for the Greeks of Mariupol, three works by 19th-century artist Arkhip Kuindzhi and others by famed Russian romantic painter Ivan Aivazovsky.

The Kuindzhi art museum, which is named for the Mariupol native, was badly damaged during a Russian airstrike on March 20, according to the Konstantin Chernavski, chairman of the Ukrainian Union of Artists.

The museum’s three original works by Kuindzhi — “Red Sunset,” “Elbrus” and “Autumn, Crimea” — were not in the museum at the time of the March strike but had been moved to a secret location, according to Chernavski.

But this week, the director of another Mariupol museum — the Museum of Local History — handed the art over to Russian forces, said Petro Andryushchenko, an adviser to Mariupol’s mayor. “Natalia Kapustnikova, who knew the exact place of secret storage of masterpieces, personally passed everything from hand to hand,” he said on Telegram.

According to Russian media, museum staff had “saved” the paintings from damage by Ukrainian fighters. “I knew where the hiding place was,” Kapustnikova told Izvestia TV. “When the fighting ended, we went and looked where it was. … As soon as possible, everything was taken out.”

Paintings by Kuindzhi are in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

Looting of art treasures has a long and dishonorable history, stretching back to the campaigns of Greek, Persian and Roman armies in antiquity. It was widespread in the World War II, as German forces stole masterpieces in occupied France, Poland and other countries, in addition to confiscating artwork owned by Jews. Works by Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Chagall, Matisse and many others ended up in German hands. Restitution efforts continue as lost works come to light many decades later.

Vowing to regain a large part of its cultural heritage, the Mariupol city council wrote that it is preparing materials “for law enforcement agencies to initiate criminal proceedings and make an appeal to Interpol.”

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