Alexander Khochinsky and Girl with Dove, 1754, by Antoine Pesne. Photo: Radio Free Europe.

Dealer Sues Polish Government over Eighteenth-Century Painting

The Manhattan-based Russian dealer Alexander Khochinsky, the owner of an eighteenth-century painting that was looted by the Nazis in 1943, is suing Poland after the country tried to have him extradited from the United States over his possession of the work. Alex Greenberger of Artnews reports that Khochinsky is now demanding compensation for legal fees and the physical, mental, and financial stress that he has endured as a result of the ongoing dispute.

According to a lawsuit filed in the US District Court for the District of Columbia, Poland “nearly destroyed [Khochinsky’s] livelihood.” In February 2015, the dealer was arrested by the FBI after Polish authorities accused him of illegally harboring Girl with Dove, 1754, by the French-born Prussian court painter Antoine Pesne. Under Polish law, the illegal acquisition, sale, or concealment of property is punishable by up to ten years in prison. However, US District Judge Jed Ratkoff declared that there was not enough evidence to suggest that Khochinsky knowingly purchased a stolen artwork and dismissed the extradition case.

While Khochinsky inherited the painting from his father, a former Soviet soldier, he claims he was not aware that it had been seized by the Nazis until 2010 when he realized it matched the description of a missing work from the collection of the Wielkopolskie Museum in Poznan, Poland. Khochinsky contacted the institution shortly after to inform its staff that he believed he had the piece, and a curator later confirmed that it was the original.

Khochinsky attempted to return the work but negotiations stalled in 2011. The dealer offered to repatriate the piece in exchange for Polish real estate that he said belonged to his mother prior to World War II. His mother, who lost several family members in the Holocaust, lived in Przemyśl in southeastern Poland before she fled the country. When Poland denied his property claim, communications between the two parties broke down.

Khochinsky said that he had heard nothing about the painting for years when federal agents showed up on his doorstep. Nicholas M. O’Donnell, Khochinsky’s lawyer, said that Poland’s “bad-faith response” is part of an “ongoing failure to come to terms with the fate of Poland’s Jews in the Holocaust and is emblematic of the anti-Semitism endemic in its government today.”

It is estimated that half a million cultural objects were taken from Poland during the German and Soviet occupation.