The paintings ‘donated’ by an unnamed “generous benefactor” on display in a new exhibition curated by Heritage Malta are owned by a wealthy Russian collector who was embroiled in the “Rubens Affair”, dubbed the Russian art world’s “biggest scandal to date”, The Shift can reveal.
The exhibition ‘Masterpieces at MUZA’ brings together a total of 13 paintings by well-known Italian Renaissance painters, including Leonardo Da Vinci, Giovanni Bellini and Raphael. The Old Masters collection, described as being on loan “from a private collector” as “a charity”, has been loaned to MUZA for at least five years.
Although the identity of the private collector has not been disclosed, the collection includes ‘Crucifixion’ by Peter Paul Rubens, dating back to the early 17th century. The picture is one of a triptych which “disappeared” in 1794 and is known to be “owned” by Russian businessman Vladimir Logvinenko.
Not much is known about him, but there have been a number of controversies around his ownership of another Rubens’ masterpiece ‘Tarquinius and Lucretia’ – a painting that also disappeared, this time while on display in Germany in 1942.
The ‘Crucifixion’, on display in Malta and previously exhibited at the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, forms part of Logvinenko’s collection which includes other Old Masters pieces by Goya, Titian and van Juden.
According to a Facebook post by Snezhana Vladimirovna Bodishtianu, a supporter and friend of Joseph and Michelle Muscat, she and her husband Evgueni helped broker the loan of the paintings to Malta.
(note: the post was taken down following the publication of this article, but we kept a screenshot just in case that is being reproduced below).
Without naming Logvinenko, she describes the loan as “a historically important gesture of a wonderful person,” adding that the exhibition “marks an important milestone in the existence of Heritage Malta”.
Bodishtianu is an accredited IIP agent authorised to sell Maltese citizenship to wealthy Russian investors. Whether the art deal is connected to Logvinenko’s efforts to acquire Maltese citizenship is as yet unclear, as the list of approved citizens published by the government only refers to those approved the year earlier. However, the timeframe of the artwork loan indicates this may be a strong possibility.
A controversial couple
The Bodishtianu couple is no stranger to controversy. In 2018, they were forced to defend themselves after accusations they swindled parents of students at the Russian-style boarding school they operated in Qawra, Malta. Parents said they were reckless with money prior to the school’s closure in 2016.
The school closed that year, owing thousands of euros to parents and suppliers. The courts then ordered the school to refund some €84,000 in tuition fees to four parents, and in 2018 they were ordered to pay €2 million in loans to BNF bank. It is not known whether this amount has ever been paid.
The situation arose in 2015, the same year Snezhana became an accredited agent for the cash-for-passports scheme. Evgueni wrote to parents saying that the school needed €900,000 to fund the school year but was €600,000 short. The pair asked parents to loan them money and insisted that they would not take a cent as they were earning money in the passport business.
Meanwhile, they reportedly continued to live a luxurious lifestyle despite failing to explain when they would repay the debt. They also acquired Maltese citizenship, although it’s unclear whether this was due to naturalisation or whether they purchased it via the IIP scheme. The government publishes both lists as one, making it difficult to identify those who paid for their Maltese passports granting access to EU countries.
The couple was also involved in the La Paloma Hotel scandal. In August 2019, the hotel that was once the Russian Boarding School and later converted into rented apartments was declared a “public health emergency”.
The police evicted around 100 people from the site and took several away in police vans. Police were reportedly heard remarking that the rooms “were not even fit for an animal to live in”.
The court ordered the Bodishtianus to carry out remedial works to ensure that people’s health was not at risk. In August 2020, the decomposing body of a man was found in the Paloma hostel’s unused lift shaft, lying amid piles of garbage and rats.
As well as appearing in selfies with disgraced ex-prime minister Joseph Muscat, Snezhanna has been posting photos of herself with Michelle Muscat, accompanied by gushing comments about the two of them.
She has also published a number of photos with Michelle, each with equally complimentary captions. One reads, “beautiful and radiant Mrs Muscat and dear Maria Grech…I was so happy to see them. This meeting and a small chat made this evening really valuable! I adore their dedicated charity work…I love you all and admire sincerely!”
Another post thanks Michelle “for this beautiful day” and wishes her well with the Marigold Foundation, adding “God Bless”.
According to the Heritage Malta website, the Masterpieces at MUZA exhibition is being supported by Visit Malta, the Ministry of National Heritage, the Arts and Local Government, the Ministry for Finance, and the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Malta.
The Shift contacted Heritage Malta to ask if they were aware of the controversy surrounding the “generous donor” of the artworks on exhibit. We also asked if Snezhana had introduced Logvinenko, brokered the deal, or in any way arranged or facilitated the inclusion of pieces owned by him.
Heritage Malta dodged the questions.
A spokesperson said, “the exhibition which you refer to includes exhibits by renowned artists of value which have never been on view in Malta and which have been generously loaned to Heritage Malta specifically for the exhibition”.
While “assuring” us that Heritage Malta had done the “necessary due diligence”, any reference to Logvinenko was avoided.
The Rubens Affair
‘Tarquinius and Lucretia’, a painting now in the hands of Logvinenko, the “generous donor” to Heritage Malta, was displayed at the Sanssouci Palace in Potsdam, Germany, until 1942. It then disappeared from the public eye and was apparently plundered by the Nazis during the Second World War.
One theory is that it fell into the hands of Major Boris Dorofeev who took the painting back to the Soviet Union and kept it in his home until the end of the 90s. From there, his daughter sold it for just $800. Others speculate that it hung in the house of Joseph Goebbels, chief propagandist for the Nazi Party.
In 1999, Logvinenko seems to have purchased it from another private collector, Russian art dealer Alexander Dadiani, for a fraction of its real value. Logvinenko claims he didn’t realise it was a Rubens when he bought it.
In 2003, a German art expert received a tip off about the picture. Gerhardt Bartoschek was the director of the Potsdam Gallery from where the photo had disappeared 61 years earlier. After its authenticity was confirmed, German authorities called for its return.
Logvinienko refused, saying he had no plans to return it, and that there was no legal obligation for it to be sent back to Germany.
“I am absolutely convinced I am the rightful owner of this painting,” he said, adding that the painting changed several hands before he purchased it in a legal transaction. Logvinenko also claimed he was a legitimate businessman and that he’d offered to send it back to Germany “for reasonable compensation” but was refused.
German authorities called on Russian prosecutors to investigate the case, but they ruled that he was the rightful owner and he hadn’t broken any Russian laws in acquiring it. He still faced criminal charges in Germany, but in 2004 a German court ruled that the government had not produced enough evidence to show the picture had been stolen.
Following the outcry, Logvinenko handed the masterpiece over to the Hermitage Gallery in St Petersburg, and then the Pushkin Museum.
In an interview with Russian Forbes, it was noted that Logvinenko put together his “great collection” of art and historic icons in “record time” – seven years. It explains that he owned a club and then started working in oil. Since then, he’s invested in commercial real estate and “providing consulting services”.
It was reported by US media that Logvinenko created a “complicated financial scheme”, pretending to sell the painting for €60 million and convincing a Russian businessman to transfer the money to a “special fund”. This money apparently and mysteriously vanished.
The topic of the picture remains a sore point between Germany and Russia as it’s reported there are more than 200,000 artefacts in Russia that should be returned.