Russian troops have looted more than 2,000 works of art from museums in the devastated Ukrainian port city of Mariupol, according to local officials.

the Washington Post shared Telegram messages from the Mariupol City Council detailing how Russian forces have systematically looted three local museums, including the Kuindzhi Art Museum, since the invasion began in February. The collection was reportedly transported to Donetsk, an industrial city in the breakaway region of eastern Ukraine backed by Russia.

“The occupiers have ‘liberated’ Mariupol from its historical and cultural heritage,” the city council wrote. “They stole and moved more than 2,000 unique exhibits from Mariupol museums to Donetsk.”

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Three paintings by Kuindzhi, along with others by his contemporary, the Russian Romantic painter Ivan Aivazovsky, were among those stolen from the city. The city council also reported the theft of several ancient icons, the Venetian Printing Office’s 1811 Gospel for the Mariupol Greeks and more than 200 medals from the Harabet Medallion Art Museum.

The Kuindzhi Art Museum, dedicated to the life and work of beloved local realist painter Arkhip Kuindzhi, was damaged by a Russian airstrike in late March, according to Konstantin Chernavski, president of the Ukrainian Union of Artists . The museum operated in an Art Nouveau monument and had over 600 paintings by Ukrainian artists of the 20th century in its collection.

The three original paintings in the Kuindzhi Museum—a sketch for red sunset and two preparatory works, Elbrus and Autumn, Crimea—had been removed from the scene before the bombardment.

However, Telegram messages from Petro Andryushchenko, an adviser to the mayor of Mariupol, alleged that the three paintings were handed over to Russian forces by Natalia Kapustnikova, director of another Mariupol institution, the Local History Museum.

“Natalia Kapustnikova, who knew the exact place of secret storage of masterpieces, personally passed everything from hand to hand,” Andryushchenko said.

Russian media reported that the paintings were “rescued” by museum staff from shelling by Ukrainian fighters. “When the fighting ended, we went to see where it was,” Kapustnikova told Izvestia TV. “As soon as possible, everything has been removed.”

The removal of cultural treasures is a common casualty of war, with records of art looting dating back to military campaigns in ancient times. During the Nazi occupation of France, Poland and other European countries, many modern masterpieces were seized and put aside in private collections or sold to help fund the war. Ongoing restitution efforts by individuals and governments are complicated by the opaque and unregulated nature of the international art market.

The Mariupol city council promised to recover its cultural heritage and said it was preparing materials “for law enforcement to initiate criminal proceedings and appeal to Interpol”.

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