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Russia auctions stolen Ukrainian painting by Aivazovsky

Russia plans to auction off Ivan Aivazovsky’s stolen “Moonlit Night” painting for over $1 million on 18 February, defying an international wanted order for the work’s return to Ukraine.
Painting “Moonlit Night” by Ivan Aivazovsky, 1878.
Russia auctions stolen Ukrainian painting by Aivazovsky

In Russia, Ukrainian artist Ivan Aivazovsky’s painting “Moonlit Night” has been put up for auction, according to Ukraine’s former Deputy Attorney General and Prosecutor of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, Gyunduz Mamedov, who has reported the auction plans.

Russia’s looting and destruction of Ukrainian museums and cultural heritage sites have resulted in significant losses, with nearly 40 museums plundered and almost 700 heritage sites damaged or destroyed since the invasion began in February 2022, causing cultural losses estimated in the hundreds of millions of euros.

The first report that “Moonlit Night” will be the main lot of the auction, which will take place at the Moscow Auction House on 18 February, appeared on the Telegram channel by Russia’s state-funded news agency RIA Novosti, noting that the painting was estimated at 100 million rubles (approximately $1.09 million) before the sale.

‘In 2017, [Interpol], at the request of [Prosecutor’s Office of the Republic of Crimea], put the paintings on the international wanted list. Thus, Russia openly disregards [international law], as according to the 1970 UNESCO Convention, the export of cultural properties and transfer of ownership is prohibited,” Mamedov emphasized on X.

In 2014, during the early stages of Russia’s occupation of Crimea, Aivazovsky’s painting “Moonlit Night” was illegally transferred to the Simferopol Art Museum, along with 52 other artworks.

Aivazovsky and his art

Ivan Aivazovsky, the 19th-century Ukrainian painter of Armenian descent, was a master of marine art, producing around 6,000 paintings during his 60-year career. Born in Feodosia, Crimea, he studied at the Imperial Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg and spent time in Italy.

On 2 June 2020, Ivan Aivazovsky’s 1878 painting “The Gulf of Naples” became the top bid at Sotheby’s, legally auctioned from a private collection. The initial cost more than doubled, with the canvas selling for nearly £2.3 million ($2.9 million).

In 2022, during the Russian invasion of Ukraine, some of his works were destroyed in an airstrike on the Kuindzhi Art Museum in Mariupol, and others were looted by Russian forces from Mariupol and Kherson museums, including “The Storm Subsides,” which was moved to the Central Taurida Museum in Simferopol, Crimea.

Ivan Aivazovsky. View of the city of Odesa. 1846. Oil on canvas. From the collection of the Kherson Art Museum, stolen by Russia’s forces in 2022.

Russia’s destruction and looting of Ukraine’s art heritage

In late February 2022, during the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Ivankiv Historical and Local History Museum in the Kyiv region was burned down by Russian forces, destroying paintings by Ukrainian folk artist Maria Prymachenko and other exhibits. Some of Prymachenko’s paintings were saved by a local resident who broke into the smoldering building and rescued about ten works. In total, the museum housed 25 of Prymachenko’s paintings.

After the occupation of Donetsk’s Mariupol early in the full-scale invasion, Russian forces pillaged more than 2,000 items from the city’s museums, including ancient religious icons, a unique handwritten Torah scroll, a 200-year-old Bible, and over 200 medals, as reported by the city’s council.

As Russia retreated from Kherson in fall 2022, it looted the Shovkunenko Kherson art museum, effectively stealing 80% of one of Ukraine’s richest art collections. Although Russia did not retreat from Kherson’s Kakhovka City, the retreating Russian army reportedly looted the Kakhovka local history museum, stealing its entire collection of over 15,000 items, including significant artifacts like ancient Greek amphoras and a Scythian ritual headdress, to occupied Crimea. 

Oleksii Shovkunenko, Girls with a goat. 1940, oil on canvas. From the collection of the Kherson museum

Following Russia’s forces’ destruction of the Kakhovka Dam in June 2023, Ukrainian naïve painter Polina Raiko’s Home-Museum in Kherson’s Oleshky was submerged underwater, leaving only 30-40% of the frescoes intact. Oleshky remain under Russia’s control to this day.

In May 2023, Russian forces looted the ancient reserve museum of Chersonesos Taurica, UNESCO’s World Heritage-listed site, in temporarily occupied Crimea, as reported by the Office of the President of Ukraine in Crimea, taking artifacts such as ancient bone and clay works under the false pretext of transporting them to a Byzantine gold exhibition in Veliky Novgorod, while also conducting illegal archaeological excavations on the museum’s premises.

In an interview with AP in October 2022, Ukraine’s then-Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko said the Russian forces looted artifacts from nearly 40 Ukrainian museums, causing cultural losses estimated in the hundreds of millions of euros.

As of July 2023, more than 664 cultural heritage sites had been damaged or destroyed since Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022, according to the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy of Ukraine.

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