An Estonian art gallery and its lawyers — who’ve been fighting a four-year legal battle over five paintings they claim are worth roughly $60 million — want a Manhattan judge to tell them the secret location where the works are being held, new court papers show.
Since July 2016, Shchukin Gallery Inc. has been fighting in court to get back the oil paintings by Russian avant-garde masters Kazimir Malevich and Natalia Gontcharova that it claims were stolen by Moscow financier Rustam Iseev.
Iseev’s lawyer told a Manhattan judge overseeing one of the lawsuits, where the works were being kept and in October 2016 denied Shchukin’s request to hold Iseev in contempt of court.
Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Paul Goetz “is named [in the case] because he is the only person in the United States who knows where the art is located, holding a secret letter in chambers with the location information and refusing multiple prior motions to disclose the location to Shchukin,” the Friday lawsuit — and third case related to the artworks — alleges.
In 2019, Goetz dismissed Shchukin’s claims against Iseev finding that the gallery wasn’t complying with turning over necessary information in the case such as proof that the gallery owned three of the works and unredacted versions of the ownership documents for the other two pieces, court documents show.
An appeal of that ruling is still pending.
Shchukin’s lawyers Weingrad & Weingrad now say the gallery hasn’t been able to pay the law firm to keep fighting the cases in court and so the firm says they also have a stake in the works being returned so they can “secure payment of their legal fees,” the court papers claim.
The new lawsuit says that since Iseev “does not claim ownership” of the works Shchukin and the law firm can foreclose on the art.
Shchukin wants the works to be transferred to another third-party secure warehouse before they are eventually sold to pay the law firm’s legal bills. They also want Iseev to confirm that none of the works have been sold and to ensure he doesn’t try to sell them.
The gallery claimed in the 2016 suit that Iseev had offered to sell the works on consignment — including “The artist Klun portrait” by Malevich valued at $30 million.
But, Iseev allegedly later refused to return the canvases, which never sold, when the gallery demanded them back, the 2016 suit alleged.
Meanwhile, Iseev has said that he was holding the artwork as collateral for an alleged $2 million loan.
New York Courts spokesman Lucian Chalfen said Friday that he couldn’t immediately address any of the allegations against the judge since the lawsuit was filed on New Year’s Day when courts are closed.
A lawyer for Iseev didn’t immediately return a request for comment.