New questions arise over the ownership of paintings smuggled from Russia during the Cold War
By Stefan Koldehoff
A document that Rosemarie Ziegler has in her Vienna apartment is 27 years old and consists of only five sentences. Nevertheless, it has caused immense trouble for one of the most renowned museums in Europe, the Moderna Museet in Stockholm.
The document is a handwritten letter, dated August 28, 1977, addressed to the Swedish scholar Bengt Jangfeldt and signed by Nikolai Khardzhiev, the famous Russian historian of art and literature. The letter names four paintings by Kazimir Malevich from Khardzhiev’s collection, worth millions of dollars, and demands that Jangfeldt return them to him.
Last year, one of those paintings, the 1915 White on Black (White Square), was donated to the Moderna Museet by Jangfeldt. Another of the works, Black Cross (1915), was acquired by the Pompidou Center in 1980.
For several decades Khardzhiev was a central figure of the Moscow avant-garde underground. He was a friend to many writers and artists, including Malevich, who gave him paintings and drawings, books and letters. In the mid-1970s, Khardzhiev and his wife, Lidia Chaga, began to consider immigrating to the West. “At that time,? says Lars Kleberg, a professor of Slavic studies at the University of Stockholm, “our department developed the idea of inviting Khardzhiev and his wife to hold a series of lectures in Stockholm. It was commonly understood that this should be arranged to give him the opportunity to leave his country and come to Sweden.?
To provide funds for his life in Sweden, Kleberg continues, Khardzhiev gave four valuable early paintings by Malevich to a Swedish diplomat and asked him to deliver them to Jangfeldt and his wife, Jelena, who would hold the works for him. Jangfeldt, a scholar in the university’s Slavic studies department (and today a member of the Swedish Academy of Arts), had excellent contacts in Moscow in the 1970s and had translated the works of a number of Russian writers. He became one of the few confidants of the notoriously suspicious Khardzhiev.