Anna Leporskaya’s painting “Three Figures” (1932-34) after it was defaced at the Boris Yeltsin Presidential Center in Russia (courtesy the Art Newspaper Russia)

A security guard who was apparently bored during his shift is accused of using a ballpoint pen to draw eyes on an abstract painting at the Boris Yeltsin Presidential Center in the Russian city of Ekaterinburg.

The incident occurred last December, when visitors at the Yeltsin Center discovered that two faceless figures in Anna Leporskaya’s painting “Three Figures” (1932-34) were suddenly gazing back at them with two sets of eyes they didn’t have before. A police investigation later found that the vandal was a private security company worker who was stationed at the center. The 60-year-old guard, whose name hasn’t been disclosed, has since been fired from his job and detained on vandalism charges, according to the Russian edition of the Art Newspaper, which broke the story

In a statement on Facebook, the Yeltsin Center said that the painting was sent to Moscow for restoration, adding that experts believe that the damage can be removed “without consequences” to the artwork.

Anna Reshetkina, the exhibition’s curator, told the Art Newspaper Russia that the accused guard defaced the painting using a “Yeltsin Centre-branded pen” on his first day at work. “His motives are still unknown but the administration believes it was some kind of a lapse in sanity,” she added.

Russian authorities initially declined to investigate the incident, deeming the damage to the painting “insignificant.” According to the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, an investigation was finally opened this month following the intervention of the country’s ministry of culture, which demanded to reclassify the offense as an attack on a cultural heritage property.

Leporskaya, a Soviet avant-garde artist who died in 1982, is associated with her longtime mentor, artist and scholar Kazimir Malevich. She is best known for her porcelain works, created alongside contemporaries like Nikolai Suetin and Lev Yudin. Many of Leporskaya’s works are held at the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, which had loaned the painting to the Yeltsin Center.

Fortunately, the damage appears to be reversible. Restoration experts at the State Tretyakov Gallery estimate that repairing the work will roughly cost 250,000 Russian rubles (~$3,340), a small fraction of the painting’s value of 75 million rubles (~$1 million).

If found guilty, the former guard could face a fine of up to 40,000 rubles (~$534), “corrective labor” for up to one year, or arrest for up to three months, according to the Art Newspaper Russia. Might he be an artist himself, as is the case with many security guards at museums art galleries? What if he took the job just to go down in history as a self-proclaimed co-author of the painting? We still don’t know the answers to these questions. Meanwhile, the Yeltsin Center has installed protective screens over the remaining works in the exhibition of fear of copycats.

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Hakim Bishara

Hakim Bishara is Co-Editor of News at Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative...