The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why a Russian billionaire wants to buy controversial statues that were taken down

(Matt Chase for The Washington Post. Photo: Timothy A. Clary/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

In June, Andrey Filatov, a Russian billionaire, chess enthusiast and art collector, sent letters to the governments of New York City and Sitka, Alaska. Both locales had decided, amid renewed calls for racial justice, to remove controversial monuments: a 10-foot tall statue of Theodore Roosevelt astride a horse outside Manhattan's American Museum of Natural History, and a bronze of Alexander Baranov, a Russian colonialist, perched on a rock and lost in thought, greeting visitors to a Sitka civic center.

Filatov owns Art Russe, a London-based foundation that aims to develop a “greater understanding of Soviet and Russian cultural contributions” outside Russia. The collection has over 250 pieces, according to Rena Lavery, Art Russe’s director. Though the foundation primarily focuses on Russian art, a BBC report in June on the removal of the Roosevelt and Baranov monuments stirred Filatov to action, and he resolved to save them.

“If the monuments are going to be thrown out, chucked away, we’re happy to buy them and dismantle them and put them together back in Russia for future generations to enjoy and to appreciate,” Lavery told me over the phone in July. (Filatov, she said, had a very busy schedule and would not be available for comment.) “The idea is preserving those things for history. History has two sides of it always. Bad or good, it’s a piece of art.”

Cities across the country are reconsidering monuments of all stripes, from paeans to Confederate generals to triumphal depictions of colonialists. While there’s growing consensus that racist statues should be removed, there’s less unity over what should be done with them once their plinths are carted away. Some argue they should be put in storage, others that they belong in museums where they can be properly contextualized. Still others, like protesters in Baltimore who toppled a statue of Christopher Columbus and rolled it into the city’s Inner Harbor, simply want them destroyed. But is there yet another possibility: that blue-chip art appreciators will want them for their collections?

A lot stands in the way for that to happen, says Sarah Cucinelli, an adviser to wealthy art collectors. Statues often have complex ownership and are subject to convoluted laws prescribing what can be done with them. The cost for a hulking monument — like Richmond’s Robert E. Lee sculpture, which weighs 13 tons — to be disassembled, stored, shipped and reassembled would be astronomical. Monuments are also designed to be elevated on pedestals and viewed from below, with postures that assert dominance over a public space and make people feel small. “That is not going to be an enjoyable experience for a collector in a smaller environment,” Cucinelli says. And because there haven’t been known sales of these statues, collectors wouldn’t be able to tell what one is worth, so investing would be a gamble. She doesn’t know of any market for removed statues and doesn’t think one will emerge.

In Richmond, the mayor’s office has received multiple unsolicited offers to buy the Confederate statues removed from the city, including from Donnie Greenwell, the owner of a mobile home remodeling company in Waverly, Ky. (Greenwell told me he has reached out to 15 Southern cities about purchasing monuments, and he hopes to create a park centered on them.) A spokesman for the city of Alexandria is not aware of any offers to buy a statue of a Confederate soldier that was recently removed by its owners, the United Daughters of the Confederacy. In Decatur, Ga., when the board of commissioners asked for bids to steward a 30-foot Confederate obelisk in the town square, no one offered to take it.

Many of the Confederate monuments across the South were actually mass-produced in New England; the mayor of a town in the former Confederacy could open a catalogue for the Bridgeport, Conn.-based Monumental Bronze Co. and order a zinc statue for $450. “They were never originally put up with any artistic value in mind,” says Tiffany Wade Momon, a visiting assistant professor of history at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., and founder of the Black Craftspeople Digital Archive. Instead, they were relatively cheap tools of propaganda, erected to intimidate and advance the Lost Cause, which promoted the false narrative that the Confederacy was a noble venture and not built on its support for slavery. As Momon puts it: “They were just rooted in anti-Blackness.”

The monument to Roosevelt outside the Natural History Museum was commissioned in 1925 to pay tribute to the former president as a “devoted naturalist,” according to the museum, and created by American sculptor James Earle Fraser. The racial hierarchy it depicts — Roosevelt on a horse as a conquering hero, sitting high above the seminude Black and Native American people he has subjugated — is part of “a long history of representation that denigrates brown and Black bodies,” says Renée Ater, a public art historian and visiting professor of Africana studies at Brown University.

The Baranov statue, in Sitka, Alaska, was erected in 1989 to commemorate the town’s history as a Russian settlement. Baranov, a colonialist and early 19th-century governor of Russian Alaska, founded Sitka in 1804 — on land long inhabited by Alaska Natives, many of whom he killed or enslaved.

Lavery says that Baranov is an important figure in Russian history, while Roosevelt, she points out, earned the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 for his role in negotiations to end the Russo-Japanese War, which secured favorable terms for Russia. Filatov, according to Lavery, sought to buy the monuments with the aim of “preserving cultural heritage” — but Ater describes that argument as “specious.” “Whose cultural heritage are they talking about?” she asks. “Are they preserving a cultural heritage that is about white supremacy? Or about colonialism? Or about the conquering of people?”

Lavery wouldn’t comment on the point that the monuments Filatov offered to buy depict racist and colonialist imagery, calling them “issues that are beyond our competence.” That history and meaning, however, are deeply tied to the monuments’ aesthetic form, Ater says. (Shortly after Filatov made his offer, Sitka announced the Baranov statue would be moved to a local museum; New York City declined his request to buy the Roosevelt statue.)

Karen Lemmey, the sculpture curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, says that every monument is erected for a purpose: to sum up a system of beliefs, to express power, to assert identity. “If it was something that was erected with the express purpose of threatening people or intimidating people,” Lemmey says, “wherein lies the beauty?”

Attacks on statues of enslavers, Confederate generals and others reflect the symbolic place they hold worldwide in the history of and fight against racism. (Video: The Washington Post)

Rebecca Nelson is a journalist in Chicago.

More from the Magazine:

Protesters topple only outdoor Confederate statue in the nation’s capital

When a crash toppled a Confederate statue, a Southern town — half black, half white — collided with its past

The Confederacy was built on slavery. How can so many Southern whites still believe otherwise?