Ukraine recovers art that took deposed president’s fancy

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Some pieces still missing as concerns grow about Crimea’s heritage after Russia’s annexation

By Sophia Kishkovsky. Web only
Published online: 20 March 2014

Thousands of Ukrainians flooded into Yanukovych’s Mezhyhirya estate when the gates were thrown open after he fled the country

Works of art that had been taken by officials of the government of Viktor Yanukovych, the former Ukrainian president who was deposed in February, to decorate government buildings have been returned to state museums, Ukraine’s Culture Ministry announced this week.

This comes after the widely publicised seizure of works from Mezhyhirya, Yanukovych’s luxurious residence near Kiev. Security camera footage released earlier this month showed Yanukovych directing workers as they packed paintings, sculptures and vases that he managed to take with him. Works that remained behind have been transferred “for temporary storage” to the National Art Museum of Ukraine for “inventory and expert evaluation”, according to a statement from the museum. “Since [Yanukovych’s] residence has been transferred to state ownership, the state must decide what will happen with these items next,” it reads.

According to the ministry of culture, 13 paintings by Ukrainian artists including Oleksii Shovkunenko and Sergei Shishko, who worked in the Soviet era, were returned to the Kiev History Museum. The paintings had been hanging in the building of the State Management of Affairs, an official agency that oversees government property, since 2012. The total value of the 13 paintings, according to the ministry, is 8.8m hryvnia or around $870,000.

A second set of ten works, worth a total of nearly $2.8m, was returned to the Bohdan and Varvara Khanenko National Museum of Arts in Kiev, which was created from a pre-Bolshevik Revolution private collection. They had been used since 2013 to decorate the official presidential residence, an early 20th-century building known as the House with Chimaeras due to its ornate exterior decoration. The most valuable of the paintings, according to the ministry, is A Gallant Scene by Nicolas Lancret, with an estimated value of $2m.

Ukrainian museum officials and campaigners had complained for years that works were being taken from museums by government officials and not returned, or were being replaced by copies.

Thousands of Ukrainians flooded into Yanukovych’s Mezhyhirya estate when the gates were thrown open after he fled. Images of them wandering the grounds, gawking at his elaborate wooden mansion and craning for a peek through the windows of remaining treasures inside went viral, as did shots of his antique car collection, gold-plated bathroom fixtures and galleon ship restaurant. There have been suggestions that the estate should be turned into a “museum of corruption”. Simon Sebag Montefiore, the historian of Stalin’s Russia, described Yanukovych’s home as “dictatorial chic”.

On 18 March, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced at the Kremlin that Crimea, which had voted two days earlier under the watchful eye of Russian troops to secede from Ukraine, was officially becoming a part of Russia. On the same day in Kiev, Yevhen Nishchuk, an actor who was appointed culture minister of Kiev’s interim government after becoming a fixture of the Euromaidan protests that brought down Yanukovych, appealed to Unesco to protect monuments in Crimea.

“Right now we don’t have access to invaluable rare objects in Tauric Chersonese, which is in Unesco’s World Heritage List, and to over 900 monuments all over Crimea,” said Nishchuk at a news conference, the Ukrainian National News website reported. “The worldview of the Ukrainian people, its entire history, events on Maidan, speak eloquently of the fact that people and character are Ukraine’s main asset, in contrast to our neighbor to the north, where the main value is empire and the state,” said Nishchuk according to the news agency.

With Crimea now effectively under Russian control, some preservationists in Moscow say they are ready to step in. “We’re going to have to acknowledge that now we have some kind of responsibility there and start working on preserving the heritage of Crimea,” Sosedov, who supports Crimea joining Russia, says.

Images of Yanukovych’s treasures, including his antique car collection, gold-plated bathroom fixtures and galleon ship restaurant, went viral

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