Looted Ukrainian Painting Sells for $1 Million At Russian Auction House

Looted Aivazovsky painting

A painting titled “Moonlit Night” by Ivan Aivazovsky fetched approximately $1 million at Russia’s Moscow Auction House on February 18. However, the sale has sparked controversy, with allegations emerging that the canvas was stolen from the Mariupol Museum of Local Lore, a regional history museum in Ukraine.

The auction gained attention when Gyunduz Mamedov, Ukraine’s former deputy prosecutor general, brought it to light last week on X (formerly Twitter). Ukrainian press outlets such as the Kyiv Independent and Ukrainska Pravda reported the incident, with the Russian news agency Tass confirming the sale on February 19. The painting sold for 92 million rubles ($995,000), slightly below the estimated 100 million rubles ($1.08 million).

According to Mamedov, the painting was unlawfully transferred to the Simferopol Arts Museum in Crimea in 2014, along with other artworks, violating international law. Interpol subsequently placed the paintings on an international wanted list.

Lydia Zaininger, executive director of the Ukrainian Institute of America, condemned the auction, labelling it a violation of international laws protecting stolen art and evidence of Russia’s campaign to destroy Ukraine’s cultural heritage.

Since it invaded Ukraine two years ago, Russia has been accused of plundering Ukrainian art and artefacts, including the destruction of at least one museum reminiscent of Nazi pillaging during World War II.

Born in 1817 in Crimea, Ivan Aivazovsky is renowned for his marine paintings. The disputed canvas, “Moonlit Night,” is allegedly part of a group of paintings that were moved from Crimea to Mariupol for an exhibition in 2014. However, in August 2017, reports surfaced that retired service members from Crimea had stolen the paintings and transported them back to Crimea.

Moscow Auction House, however, has dismissed claims of theft, asserting that the painting in question, dated 1878 and depicting Constantinople, was acquired in Sweden in 2008. They argue it is distinct from another painting titled “Moonlit Night” from 1882, representing the Black Sea coast near Feodosiya, which remains in the Simferopol Museum of Arts.

Sergey Podstanitsky, co-founder of Moscow Auction House, refuted the allegations, stating there is no evidence to support the claims against the sale.

Aivazovsky’s auction record stands at £2.7 million ($5.3 million) set at Christie’s London in 2007 for the painting “American Shipping off the Rock of Gibraltar” (1873), significantly exceeding its high estimate.

Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky (Russian: Иван Константинович Айвазовский) was a distinguished Russian Romantic painter renowned for his mastery of marine art. Born on July 29, 1817 (O.S. July 17), in the Black Sea port of Feodosia in Crimea, he was baptized as Hovhannes Aivazian into an Armenian family.

Educated at the Imperial Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg, Aivazovsky embarked on travels across Europe, residing briefly in Italy during the early 1840s. Returning to Russia, he assumed the role of the principal painter of the Russian Navy. Aivazovsky’s association with the military and political elites of the Russian Empire was close, often participating in military exercises. Enjoying state sponsorship, he earned widespread acclaim during his lifetime. The expression “worthy of Aivazovsky’s brush,” popularized by Anton Chekhov, became synonymous with beauty in Russia. Even in the 21st century, Aivazovsky remains a celebrated figure in Russian art.

Aivazovsky’s influence extended beyond the borders of the Russian Empire, with numerous solo exhibitions held across Europe and the United States. Over his nearly six-decade career, he produced approximately 6,000 paintings, establishing himself as one of the most prolific artists of his era. While renowned for his seascapes, Aivazovsky also depicted battle scenes, Armenian motifs, and portraiture. Many of his works are housed in museums across Russia, Ukraine, Armenia, and Turkey, as well as in private collections, attesting to his enduring legacy in the art world.

Top Photo: Ivan Aivazovsky, Moonlit Night. Courtesy of Gyunduz Mamedov, via X/Twitter.

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