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February 14, 2024

A stolen painting by Ivan Aivazovsky? This work is set to be auctioned in Russia in four days.

Full Moon Night, 1878 by Ivan Aivazovsky

There are 32 stolen paintings listed in the INTERPOL Works of Art database by the Romantic painter Ivan Aivaszovsky (1817-1900), when searching under the spelling "Ivan Constatinowitsch Aivazoffski" but not, apparently this one.  This one is scheduled to be auctioned in Moscow on February 18th. 

Aivazovsky, born Hovhannes Aivazian in 1817, was a prolific marinist artist of Armenian descent who left an indelible mark on the art world with his mesmerising seascapes. Born in 1817 in the Crimean city of Feodosia, Aivazovsky studied painting at the Fine Art Academy in Saint Petersburg, but it was his deep connection to the Black Sea coast which profoundly influenced his work, and earned him the title "the painter of the sea." 

Considered a master of light and shadow, Aivazovsky's oeuvre comprises over 6,000 paintings, ranging from serene moonlit scenes, tempestuous maritime battles, and shipwrecks often capturing the irresistible and ever-changing moods of the sea, as well as the men who navigated upon it, with unparalleled realism and drama. 

His works have been sold for a wide range of prices, with some of his most renowned and iconic works fetching millions. His eponymous painting, The Ninth Wave, 1850 depicts an unlucky group of castaways trying to survive a shipwreck.  The artwork was a hat tip to the nautical phenomenon in which waves are said to grow larger and larger, in a continuing series, up until the largest wave, the ninth, at which point the sequence starts again.  This painting has been part of the collection of the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg since 1897, having originally been acquired for the Imperial Hermitage of Emperor Alexander III.  

According to ArtPrice, as one of the most sought-after 19th century painters, Aivazovsky's works have gone up for sale at public auction at least 1,296 times some at modest prices and others tipping the top of the chart.  In 2006, two London auctions of his paintings, View of Constantinople (1852) and The Varangians on the Dnieper (1876) hammered in at € 2,142,810 at Christie's and € 2,262,535  at Sotheby's. In 2020, the artist's painting The Bay of Naples, 1878 was sold at Sotheby’s for $2.9 million.

But let's talk about the origins of one of Aivazovsky's seascapes coming up for sale in Russia just four days. 

Painted by Aivazovsky in 1878, Full Moon Night, 1878, the 63.4 X 84.2 cm aoil on canvas painting is set to be auctioned at the Moscow Auction House, with a starting bid listed at 100 million (€1,022,677).

The painting's accompanying documentation says very little about the painting's provenance.  Instead, the auction house provides a 2009 letter, signed by three individuals working at the Russian Museum for Scientific Work attesting to the artworks authenticity. 

Yesterday,  Günduze Aydynovych, an Azerbaijani-born Ukrainian lawyer and human rights activist who has served as Prosecutor of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea reported on the Social Media website "X" that this artwork was one of some fifty canvases illegally transferred to the Simferopol Art Museum at the beginning of the Russian occupation of Crimea in 2014, and its theft was registered with INTERPOL in 2017.

But how did this painting get to Russia? 

According to Ukrainian authorities, on 18 February 2014, the Simferopol Art Museum and the Mariupol Museum of Local Lore signed an exhibition agreement to jointly exhibit paintings as part of the exhibition Russian and Ukrainian Art of the 18th - Early 20th Centuries.  The offering was designed to give audiences a rare opportunity to explore the diverse artistic expressions of Russian and Ukrainian artists side by side from these periods. 

On the same day, 52 paintings belonging to the Museum Fund of Ukraine, including Aivazovsky's Full Moon Night, 1878 arrived in Mariupol from Crimea. 

Expected to last until 31 May 2014, the exhibition was forced to close earlier when the management of the Simferopol Art Museum recalled the paintings to the territory of the then-occupied Crimea due to the increasingly tense socio-political situation in Ukraine.  On 19 March 2014, the Mariupol museum workers received a letter from the director of the Simferopol Art Museum.  Thereafter, Olga Chaplinska, the then-head of the Mariupol Museum of Local History terminated the exhibition agreement and on 20 March 2014 Nataliya Kuryonysheva, also from the Mariupol Museum oversaw the handover of 52 paintings to an envoy for transfer to the Simferopol Museum.  According to later reports in Russian media, the museum's staff had “saved” these paintings from damage by Ukrainian fighters.

In March 2018 both women were criminally charged for their actions pursuant to Part 2 of Article 367 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine, which consists in official negligence, i.e. failure to perform or improper performance of official duties by an official, which caused significant damage to Ukraine's state interests.

By December 2016 and up through March 2017, Full Moon Night, 1878 by Aivazovsky was in St Petersburg, circulating along with 53 other works of art by the artist during a special exhibition.  This 200 year anniversary event occupied the entire first floor of the Benois building of the State Russian Museum. 

The basis of this exhibition was said to be well-known and unfamiliar works completed by Aivazovsky from public and private collections.  A special section of the exhibition was dedicated to the theme “Aivazovsky - battle painter” - paintings depicting naval episodes of the Crimean War of 1853–1856. 

By 19 August 2017 Tetyana Tikhonchyk, the press secretary of the Prosecutor's Office of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea temporarily stationed in Kyiv had published a copy of a letter to her Facebook page.

This document, protocolled as: 
Identification code 40108756
19 08.2017 № 4584/100/01-2017

From the National Police of Ukraine - Main Department of the National Police in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and Sevastopol received by the Prosecutor of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea to the Senior Advisor of Justice Mamedov G.A reads as follows:

Dear Günduze Aydynovych,

We inform you that according to the response of the Department of Interpol and Europol of the National Police of Ukraine, the works of art mentioned in the letter dated August 15, 2017 No. 4369/100/01-2017 were entered into the records of the General Secretariat of Interpol as "stolen".

Best regards

Head, Police General of the third rank

A.K. Bakhchivanzhi

Unfortunately, due to insufficient resources and the ongoing war in Ukraine, images and documentation for the 52 works of art, identified in this single 2014 misappropriation, have not yet been uploaded to the Interpol Works of Art database and made accessible to the public and other country law enforcement agencies. 

ARCA hopes that by highlighting Günduze Aydynovych's concerns and Ukraine's supporting documentation on their artworks' removal, will serve as a cautionary reminder that this painting's auction, (and potentially others) is being questioned by  Ukraine as has been removed from the confines of the territory of Ukraine in contravention of the laws of Ukraine. 

For now, ARCA recommends that responsible and ethical collectors refrain from bidding on this artwork unless its full provenance documentation is provided.  

UPDATE: 19:00 GMT+1

Moscow Auction House has told Russian journalists with RBC that the painting  Full Moon Night, 1878 by Aivazovsky was purchased at Stockholm's Auktionsverk in Sweden in 2008.  They also state that it is this second Moonlit Night, a view of the Black Sea off the Crimean coast in the Feodosia region dating to 1882 which is the subject of the Interpol notice as having been once been part of the Simferopol Art Museum collection. 


ARCA has confirmed there was a 2008 sale in Stockholm which matches the depiction of the disputed Aivazovsky painting, now up for auction in Moscow. This painting, under the title of A corner of Constantinople from the sea by moonlight, was painted in 1878 and uses a different phonetical spelling for the artist, referring to him as Ivan Constantinovich Aivazovsky.  According to the ArtPrice database, this painting sold for a hammer price of € 338,910. 

What remains a question is why, and for what the motive if any, did the auction house and the authenticators at the Russian Museum for Scientific Work, who attested to the artworks authenticity, change the name of the artwork.

By Lynda Albertson