How two Ukrainian art dealers saved valuable paintings

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It was a rescue operation that reads like the plot of a war thriller: a Ukrainian art dealer and gallery owner risk their lives to save works of art from the embattled city of Kyiv. They did not do this on behalf of the government or any other organization, but on their own initiative as art lovers. Katharina Vozianova and Oleksandr Shchelushchenko tell DW how they managed to bring the artworks to Germany.

‘It was very scary’

Ukrainian art dealer Katharina Vozianova spontaneously fled her home in Kyiv in February without a plan for her artworks. “When the war started, I jumped into my car with three other people and drove off. I only had a small suitcase and a small painting by Ievgen Petrov with me,” she says.

Before the war she worked with various galleries in Kyiv and London, dealing in contemporary and avant-garde art. She never thought her life would change so quickly.

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Actually, she had already planned her next big exhibition with works by the Ukrainian painter Ievgen Petrov with the gallery owner Oleksandr Shchelushchenko. Dozens of his artworks were already stored in Shchelushchenko’s TSEKH gallery in Kyiv.

The war changed everything

After a short stay in Munich, Vozianova returned to her hometown. She didn’t want to lose her art to the war.

Shchelushchenko recalls Catherine’s return. “She suggested that we take our artwork to Germany, where she is well connected. She would transport the art as a courier and organize everything that goes with it.”

And so the two set off on their bold rescue mission. While the Russian army was attacking Kyiv, Shchelushchenko drove to his gallery and took the paintings out of the frames. “When I came to Kyiv on March 7th, the atmosphere was very aggressive. Kyiv was bombed, there were bombings around the gallery,” he says. He was assisted by armed helpers. “We came with weapons and special protective clothing.”

“Act Quickly or Die”

Shchelushchenko learned to appreciate new things during the rescue operation. “It was very interesting for me to see that everything has to happen very quickly in war. There’s no time for ‘Oh, I like that. Oh, but I don’t like that.’ You don’t have time for sensitivities. Either you act fast or you die.”

Lacking the proper packaging material, the gallerist and his helpers rolled up the artworks by contemporary artists Ievgen Petrov and Mykola Bilous and packed them in sewage pipes that protected the artworks. “There were three huge tubes, almost as tall as me,” says Vozianova.

Meanwhile, Vozianova toured Kyiv to salvage more artwork from her own apartment, collecting valuables left behind by her friends when they fled.

Then she took the packed sewer pipes from Shchelushchenko’s gallery, loaded them into her car and drove to Chernivtsi. The western Ukrainian city is about 45 minutes by car from Romania.

Suspicious tubes

Despite escaping the war, Vozianova still had to face bureaucratic challenges after reaching the Ukrainian-Romanian border. “You can’t just drive across the border. I had to provide documents proving that the paintings are not national treasures but works of contemporary art.”

She also had problems at the airport, as the security staff initially did not let her through check-in. “They saw me, a little woman with these big tubes in her arms, and they said, ‘What the hell is in there?’ And then they X-rayed it to make sure there were no guns inside.”

Around 40 paintings in Munich

The artworks survived the journey from Kyiv to Munich. What will happen to them now is still uncertain. Katharina Vozianova and Oleksandr Shchelushchenko would like to exhibit them and sell them to collectors. “We already have invitations to Berlin Art Week and Art Vienna,” says Shchelushchenko confidently.

But first, the paintings will be on display at the ARTMUC art gallery in Munich from May 13-15. After that, they will be displayed in a pop-up gallery. “The plan is to show them together with other works of art from Ukraine. We want to support the artists who are stuck in Ukraine,” says Vozianova.

The art market in the country is completely shattered. Many of the artists she represents became depressed, started drinking and stopped painting. The war weighs heavily on them, says Shchelushchenko, who left Kyiv because he no longer feels safe there. He now lives out of town taking care of his mother.

“We are in constant contact with the artists,” adds Vozianova. “Mykola Bilous is a really strong man. He told me: ‘I will protect my house and my studio, I will definitely not leave’.” Ievgen Petrov does not want to leave Ukraine either. “None of them want that.” But as soon as they change their mind, says the art dealer, “we’ll get them out again immediately.”

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