“The occupiers have ‘liberated’ Mariupol from its historical and cultural heritage,” the city council wrote. “They stole and moved more than 2,000 unique exhibits from Mariupol museums to Donetsk.”
Among the works taken were the Venetian Printing House’s 1811 Gospel for the Greeks of Mariupol, three works by 19th-century artist Arkhip Kuindzhi and others by famous Russian Romantic painter Ivan Aivazovsky.
The Kuindzhi Art Museum, named after the Mariupol native, was badly damaged in a Russian airstrike on March 20, according to Konstantin Chernavski, president of the Ukrainian Union of Artists.
The three original Kuindzhi museum works – “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 Local History Museum – handed the art over to Russian forces, said Mariupol mayor adviser Petro Andriushchenko. “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 caused by Ukrainian fighters. “I knew where the hiding place was,” Kapustnikova told Izvestia TV. “When the fighting ended, we went to see where it was. … As soon as possible, everything was removed.
Kuindzhi’s paintings are part of the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.
The looting of art treasures has a long and disreputable history, dating back to the campaigns of Greek, Persian and Roman armies in ancient times. It was prevalent during World War II, when German forces stole masterpieces from occupied France, Poland and other countries, in addition to confiscating works of art belonging to 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 decades later.
Vowing to recover much of its cultural heritage, the Mariupol city council wrote that it was preparing materials “for law enforcement to initiate criminal proceedings and appeal to Interpol”.