A decades-spanning legal battle over a Constantin Brancusi sculpture that has long been a beloved fixture of Paris’s Montparnasse Cemetery has ended in a win for the French state. In July, a French court deemed the marble sculpture, titled The Kiss, a historical monument and integral component of the tombstone it is installed atop, barring its removal from the funeral grounds, Le Figaro reports. For over a decade, the Russian heirs of the woman buried beneath the gravestone had been seeking permission to export the artwork to Russia.
The new ruling is a rebuke to a decision made last December by the Administrative Court of Appeal of Paris, which sided in favor of the heirs’ claim. However, when the family went to the grave to claim the sculpture shortly after, the city of Paris refused to allow them to take it to Russia, prompting a return to court.
Commissioned in 1909 for the modest price of two hundred francs by the then-little known Romanian artist, The Kiss was purchased by a Romanian doctor named Solomon Marbais to decorate the grave of his lover Tatiana Rachevskaïa, a Russian student who took her own life. In the century since its creation, the sculpture, which depicts two abstracted lovers in an embrace, has become one of the most popular attractions of the cemetery, drawing thousands of Brancusi admirers a year. In 2018, visitors discovered that the work had been hidden from public view in a mysterious box, leading to the revelation that it was subject to a legal claim.
In fact, the legal fracas began over a decade earlier. In 2005, the Parisian art dealer Guillaume Duhamel inquired about the work, following a steep rise in Brancusi’s market value. (Brancusi’s 1922–23 sculpture Bird in Space had recently sold at Christie’s in New York for $27 million, making the work the most expensive sculpture ever auctioned publicly for a short time.) Brancusi created multiple versions of The Kiss, two of which reside in the National Museum of Art in Bucharest and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Montparnasse version was valued at 40 million–50 million euros, with six people claiming to own the rights to it.
In 2006, Duhamel and the French auction house Millon tracked down Rachevskaïa’s heirs in Ukraine, who filed an application with the French Ministry of Culture to export the sculpture to Russia. Suspicious that The Kiss would end up at auction, the City of Paris declined the export request and listed it as a cultural monument. Rachewskaya’s descendants’ argument rested on the detail that the sculpture was created two years before Tatiana’s death, supporting their claim that it was never intended by the artist for her grave.
“They must stop presenting us as grave robbers,” Duhamel said in a statement at the time.