Moscow Auction House Sells a $1 Million Painting Reportedly Stolen from a Ukrainian Museum

The auction house says it’s a different painting with the same title, but a former prosecutor isn’t convinced.

Ivan Aivazovsky, Moonlit Night. Courtesy of Gyunduz Mamedov, via X/Twitter.

A painting titled Moonlit Night by Ivan Aivazovsky sold at Russia’s Moscow Auction House for about $1 million on February 18. The sale is controversial, with some claiming the canvas was stolen from the Mariupol Museum of Local Lore, a regional history museum in Ukraine. 

The auction first came to light when Gyunduz Mamedov, the former deputy prosecutor general of Ukraine, posted about it on X (formerly Twitter) last week. It was widely reported in the Ukrainian press, including at the Kyiv Independent and Ukrainska Pravda, and the Russian news agency Tass confirmed the sale on February 19. The painting sold for a little shy of the asking price: 92 million rubles ($995,000) against an estimate of 100 million ($108 million).

The painting was transferred to the Simferopol Arts Museum in Crimea in 2014 among a group of other artworks in violation of international law, according to Mamedov, who noted that Interpol placed the paintings on an international wanted list.

“This artwork has been publicly documented as stolen from a museum in Ukraine, which is where it should be returned,” Lydia Zaininger, the executive director of the Ukrainian Institute of America, told Artnet News. “Putting it up for public auction is an affront to international rules of order, a flagrant violation of UNESCO’s laws protecting stolen art, and further clear evidence of Russia’s genocidal campaign to destroy Ukraine’s cultural heritage.”

Russia has engaged in wholesale plunder of Ukrainian art and artifacts—even destroying at least one museumsince it invaded two years ago. “International art experts say the plundering may be the single biggest collective art heist since the Nazis pillaged Europe in World War II,” reported the New York Times in 2023.

Aivazovsky was born in 1817 in the Black Sea port city of Fedosia in Crimea. The strategically important territory has changed hands among various powers many times over the years, and has been under Russian occupation since 2014. Aivazovsky is known for his marine paintings, which recently went on permanent display at the National Gallery of Armenia.

According to Pravda, the Simferopol Art Museum and the Mariupol Museum of Local Lore agreed in 2014 that 52 paintings from the Ukrainian Museum Fund would go to Mariupol from Crimea for an exhibition. In March 2014, the Simferopol Museum demanded the early return of the works to Crimea, which had since come under occupation by the Russians. An official from Mariupol’s Kuindzhi Art Museum later handed over the paintings to the Crimean museum.

In August 2017, Radio Liberty reported, citing Russian media, that a group of retired servicemen from Crimea had stolen the paintings from the Mariupol Museum and transported them to Crimea and the Ukrainian prosecutor’s office in Crimea announced that 50 paintings were added to Interpol’s database of stolen paintings. Officials involved in handing the works over faced prison sentences, according to Pravda, but received amnesty.

Moscow Auction House has brushed off claims that the painting was stolen, according to Tass, saying that Aivazovsky produced many similar paintings and that this is a different canvas. Both are titled Moonlit Night but the house maintains that the painting it sold dates from 1878, depicts Constantinople, and was acquired in Sweden at the Stockholms Auktionsverk in 2008, whereas the other dates from 1882, depicts the Black Sea coast near Feodosiya, and remains in the Simferopol Museum of Arts.

“There is no evidence supporting the strange claims made by this side,” Moscow Auction House’s co-founder, Sergey Podstanitsky, told Tass.

According to the Artnet Price Database, Aivazovsky’s auction record stands at £2.7 million ($5.3 million at the time), set at Christie’s London in 2007 for the painting American Shipping off the Rock of Gibraltar (1873). The price more than quadrupled the work’s high estimate of £600,000 (about $787,000).


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