Smoke Screen at the Stedelijk

New evidence suggests that the museum obscured the history of how it came by its Malevich collection. New evidence suggests that the museum obscured the history of how it came by its Malevich collection

The fate of 14 works by Kazimir Malevich in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam may soon be decided in a Washington, D.C. courtroom. The heirs of the Russian avant-garde artist, who have successfully claimed works from the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Busch-Reisinger Museum of Harvard University, are now in pursuit of a significant part of the largest collection of Malevich’s works in the West. They say that the Stedelijk bought the works from someone who didn’t own them and had no right to sell them.

As the 35 heirs and the City of Amsterdam, which runs the Stedelijk, prepare to face off in court, a Dutch journalist has uncovered new evidence about the museum’s 1958 acquisition of the Malevich collection. In two recent articles in the national Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad, Lien Heyting charges that Stedelijk Museum director Willem Sandberg knew he was buying the works from someone who didn’t own them. Moreover, Heyting accuses museum officials of suppressing some of the circumstances of the purchase because they feared that Malevich’s heirs might someday emerge from behind the Iron Curtain to claim their heritage. To foil potential claimants, Heyting says, museum officials “falsely reported” the history of the Malevich collection. Retired Stedelijk curator Joop Joosten told Heyting that he had concealed the truth in a 1988 catalogue “to avoid stirring up the anthill. I would have been providing people with arguments they could have used to take the collection away from us.” The fears of Stedelijk officials have been realized. In January, the heirs, who live in North America and in Europe, sued for the return of the 14 works—13 paintings and a drawing—that had been brought to the United States for an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Menil Collection in Houston. The suit was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976. The FSIA protects sovereign nations from being sued in U.S. courts, but in this case, the complaint argues, the U.S. court has jurisdiction because the works in question were taken by Amsterdam from their rightful owners in violation of international law and because they were present in this country in connection with a commercial activity carried on in the United States by the foreign state—the Malevich exhibition. The works are valued in the complaint at $150 million. The Stedelijk owns 84 works by Malevich, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, but the suit involves only those that were brought to the United States last year.

The heirs’ attorney, Lawrence M. Kaye, of the New York firm Herrick, Feinstein, said that the City of Amsterdam had filed a motion to dismiss the heirs’ case and that both sides were waiting for oral arguments to be scheduled. Christopher M. Curran, of the Washington office of White & Case, attorneys for the City of Amsterdam, declined to comment. A spokesperson for Gijs van Tuyl, who will take over as director of the Stedelijk next month, said that van Tuyl didn’t want to comment.

Malevich brought his works to Western Europe in 1927 for an exhibition in Berlin and left them behind, in the care of friends, when he was ordered back to the Soviet Union. He hoped to return to the West someday, but he was never again allowed to leave the U.S.S.R., even for medical treatment. He died of cancer in Leningrad in 1935.

When it became clear that Malevich would not return to Germany, the collection was sent to the artist’s friend Alexander Dorner, director of the Hanover Museum, where it remained until Dorner emigrated to the United States. (He later taught at Bennington College in Vermont.) Dorner sent the works to the architect Hugo Häring, who hid them in Berlin until 1943 and then took them to Biberach, his hometown, in southern Germany. It was there that Sandberg first saw the Malevich collection in 1951.

Sandberg was very interested in acquiring the works for exhibition, but Häring maintained repeatedly that he didn’t own them. He could rent them to the museum but could not sell them. Then, in 1956, he produced a notarized deed that supposedly proved he owned the works after all, and he agreed to sell them to the museum.

The deed was drawn up by Häring’s brother-in-law, a German notary, Ernst Böhme. In it, Häring claimed that Malevich had entrusted the collection to him in 1927 with the understanding that the works would become his possessions if Malevich did not return for them. In 1945 Häring assumed he had become the owner of the works. He waited another ten years, during which time no one else claimed them At that point, under West German law, the works became his property.

According to Heyting, Sandberg deeply distrusted the document. Why was Häring suddenly asserting his ownership after having denied it so persistently? Sandberg was also worried about legitimate heirs in the Soviet Union. He delayed the purchase while he contacted two Russian museums for information, because, he later wrote, he wanted to be certain that “no one could contest the transaction.” He feared that “one of the heirs to the Malevich estate could act against us.”

Joosten told ARTnewsthat Sandberg “realized very well that the collection didn’t belong to Häring. But Malevich had died, and what the Malevich heirs could do, he didn’t know.” Sandberg received a reply from only one of the museums; it merely thanked him for his letter. “What would you do?” Joosten asks. “Find out where the family is? At the time it was not so easy. It was a strange situation.” But, Heyting says, neither Häring’s denials of ownership nor Sandberg’s fears are mentioned in later museum publications about the Malevich purchase.

Heyting calls the deed “from first to last a fairy tale.” One of the most startling facts she has unearthed is that Häring was not telling the truth when he claimed that Malevich had entrusted the collection to him. In fact, she says, Malevich entrusted his works to a group of friends that included the artist Hans Richter (who described the occasion in his memoirs), Dorner, and Häring’s first wife, who was Russian and could speak to Malevich in his own language. (She died in 1939.) According to Richter’s memoirs, Häring wasn’t even present at the time.

Sandberg was no villain. The Malevich collection posed a moral dilemma for him. By 1956, he wrote, Häring was “bien débile,” a senile old man. He was poor and had a young wife. He was bound to sell the collection sooner or later, and Sandberg knew that if the museum didn’t acquire it, others would. The artist Naum Gabo had written to him that “a whole pack of wolves of art dealers and speculators” were attempting to snatch the collection from Häring’s grasp and “by any means to get possession of Malevich’s work. I am afraid that something has to be done—and soon—before this happens.” Desperate to save the collection, Gabo was pleased to learn that Häring and Sandberg had made a deal, Häring agreeing to lend the collection to the Stedelijk in return for an annual fee. A few months later, however, the collection was offered to the museum for sale.

The purchase of the 84 works, including 30 paintings, was the most important acquisition Sandberg ever made for the museum. The price was low—only about $29,000. The value of the collection today is in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Joosten’s 1988 catalogue wasn’t the only museum publication that left out part of the story. In 1969 the Danish scholar Troels Andersen, who had been asked to write a catalogue for the Stedelijk’s Malevich collection, turned in his manuscript to then-director Edyde Wilde. Heyting reveals that de Wilde sent the manuscript to jurist Piet Sanders, who advised the deletion of any suggestion that Häring didn’t consider himself to be the owner of the collection. De Wilde, also a legal scholar, agreed. Sanders declined to comment.

The Stedelijk is still putting up a smoke screen: a book just published under the museum’s auspices, Caroline Roodenburg-Schadd’s Expression and Structure: Willem Sandberg’s Collection Policy for the Stedelijk Museum, 1945–1962, also relates the history of the Malevich collection “inaccurately,” Heyting says. And, she reports, the Malevich file in the Amsterdam municipal archive has vanished.

Heyting also reports that in the 1970s the Soviet Ministry of Culture, acting at the request of Malevich’s heirs, asked the Dutch government how Amsterdam had come into possession of the Malevich collection. The Dutch government answered that the city had bought the collection legally from a German owner; and the Soviet government told the heirs that there was no basis for bringing up the matter between the two governments. De Wilde told Heyting that he knew questions had been asked, but “I was not involved, and I didn’t know the heirs were behind those questions.”

The “original situation was not of selling and not of acquiring but of exhibiting” the Malevich collection, Joosten told ARTnews. “That’s just the problem. Did Haring sell it? No. He gave it to the museum as a loan.” The money paid him “had nothing to do with buying the collection. That’s why the price was so low.” Does Joosten believe that the museum is now the rightful owner of the collection? He replied that the museum and the heirs “have to fight for it.”

Additional reporting by Kelly Devine Thomas.

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