A world-renowned collection of avant-garde Russian art housed in a remote museum in Uzbekistan may be at risk after the director was abruptly fired on what staff say were trumped-up charges.
The alarm was raised August 27 by staff working at the Savitsky Karakalpkstan Museum who claim the director, Marinika Babanazarova, was forced to resign over allegations she had stolen works of art.
But the staff insist that nothing has been stolen from the state-run museum, which is located in the remote city of Nukus some 800 kilometers north of Tashkent and houses more than 50,000 pieces of Soviet-era avant-garde art.
They claim the move to oust Babanazarova is part of a ploy to seize control of its valuable collection, which has won world renown.
Babanazarova this week told the New York Times that the charges against her are "absurd," and "somebody just wants to remove me.”
Two dozen American and European museum curators, art historians, and other specialists have called the charges “utter nonsense.” They say they fear the collection will be moved to Tashkent, ostensibly for its own safety, after which the masterpieces would quietly “disappear” -- possibly sold off to eager and wealthy western collectors.
Among the artists included in the collection are the famous cubo-futurist and suprematist Lyubov Popova, and other celebrated avant-garde painters from the first half of the 20th century such as Alexander Shevchenko and Robert Falk.
The museum's founder, Russian artist Igor Savitsky, settled in Uzbekistan in the 1950s and began amassing works of art that ran contrary to state-endorsed Socialist Realist art, largely using funds from the local authorities. He opened the museum in 1966.
When Savitsky died in 1984, Babanazarova, his hand-picked successor, took over as director of the museum. It maintained its independence despite officially belonging to the Uzbek state.
The museum's remote location meant that its collection was largely forgotten for decades. But it was rediscovered in the post-Soviet era and set off a frenzy of interest from European art dealers and well-heeled profiteers.
Western collectors descended on remote, dusty Nukus and dangled eye-popping sums of money and other emoluments. Babanazarova refused to part with a single one of the treasures in her care, she has said.
Now she faces a new threat. Uzbek authorities may see the museum as a pot of gold ripe for looting.
It is not the first time they have targeted Babanazarova. Four years ago, they prevented her leaving to attend the screening of a documentary on the Savitsky collection in the United States.
Andrei Volkov, a Russian artist whose grandfather’s works are among the pieces gathered by Stavisky in Nukus, told the New York Times that Babanazarova’s current troubles were a “shock for us.”
He attributed her ouster to private collectors and government authorities who, he said, want to get their hands on the museum's collection.
With reporting by AFP, Boston Globe, New York Times, and The Diplomat