Stolen drawings of Russian avant-garde artist returned to Russia from France

After a decade of fruitless attempts to recover from France drawings by Russian avant-garde artist Pavel Filonov, the French government finally surrendered the works to the Russian Embassy on Sept. 27. The seven Filonov drawings were stolen from the Russian Museum nearly 20 years ago. The exact date is unknown because the originals were switched with finely executed copies - presumably some time between 1978 and 1981. The drawings were purchased by the Pompidou in 1983 from a Paris antique dealer of Russian descent for 62,500 French francs (or about $11,000 at the time). Filonov (1882-1941) was one of the leaders of Russia's avant-garde movement, and known for his style, called "analytical art." He never sold any of his works, but upon his death in 1941 during the Blockade of Leningrad, he bequeathed them to his sister, Yelena Glebova, who in turn donated them to the Russian Museum in 1977. Though the works are not extremely valuable, their return puts an end to one of the most complex and incredible art theft sagas after World War II, and raises many questions about the extent of French guilt for holding on to stolen art. "We are very grateful to the French Ministry of Culture and the Pompidou for having taken the decision to return to Russia what belongs here," said Anatoly Vilkov, head of the Culture Ministry's department for the preserving of cultural valuables. Pompidou Center president Jean-Jacques Ailliagon said in a Culture Minstry press statement that "the return of the drawings is a manifestation of fulfilling a high moral duty and we hope other museums will follow our example." The crime was only discovered in 1985 when a Russian Museum art historian saw a copy of "Cahiers du Musee d'Art Moderne," published by the Pompidou in 1983, with photos of the stolen drawings. After a careful inspection she concluded that the ones in the museum's possession were forgeries, but the case was hushed up, and in fact, a criminal investigation was only initiated in 1991. Even more surprisingly, when the Russian Museum held its Filonov exhibit at the Pompidou in 1990, it did not take any measures to pressure the Parisian museum into returning the stolen drawings. Ironically, the stolen Filonov drawings took part in that show as belonging to the Pompidou, even though both Russian and French museum officials knew the truth about their origins. While the drawings have returned, the scandal may only just be beginning. Documents shown to the St. Petersburg Times, and confirmed by the Culture Ministry, clearly indicate that as of 1993 French officials knew the Filonov works were indeed stolen. Yet, the French refused to return them. According to documents shown to The St. Petersburg Times, former Pompidou director Germain Viatte, accompanied by another Pompidou official, Marion Vulien, brought the Filonov drawings to St. Petersburg in September 1993 to show them to Russian officials for expert advice on whether or not they were indeed genuine. Michel Taran, an official at the French consulate in St. Petersburg, assisted them in bringing the drawings into Russia using the diplomatic bag. The drawings were then shown to Russian Museum director, Vladimir Gusev, and his specialists confirmed the drawings' authenticity. That day, however, the drawings were promptly packed up and returned to France, once again in the diplomatic bag. The Russian Museum took no action to stop stolen art from leaving Russia. The St-Peterburg Times

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