After nearly a century on view and a legal battle spanning more than a decade, a Constantin Brancusi sculpture that had been one of the top attractions in Paris’s Montparnasse Cemetery can be taken away from its longtime home. The French outlet Le Monde reports that in December a French court sided with the heirs of the person buried beneath the gravestone on which the Brancusi is set, meaning that the family can reclaim the work.
But the legal fracas over the work, a 1909 sculpture titled The Kiss showing two abstracted lovers in an embrace, is not quite over yet. When the heirs went to the grave to obtain the work in December, the City of Paris refused to allow them to take it away. The heirs are now fighting once more to obtain it.
The marble sculpture had been set atop the tomb of Tatiana Rachevskaïa, a Russian student who committed suicide in 1910. Her lover, a Romanian doctor named Solomon Marbais, purchased the work from Brancusi and had it put on her grave sometime around 1910 or 1911. Similar versions of The Kiss reside in the National Museum of Art in Bucharest and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The Montparnasse version of The Kiss had long been a site of pilgrimage for Brancusi fans and a beloved fixture in the cemetery for thousands of visitors who come each year. It became a source of intrigue in 2018, when it was mysteriously covered with a box. The cemetery claimed at the time to not know why it was hidden from public view, though it emerged in 2019, via a report in L’Express, that the sculpture was subject to a legal claim.
The roots of that tussle stretch back to 2005, when Brancusi’s market began to rapidly expand, thanks to the sale of Bird in Space (1922–23) at Christie’s in New York. At the time, the sale made that $27 million work the most expensive sculpture ever auctioned publicly. The Telegraph reported that Leon Black was its buyer.
That same year, six people claimed they owned the rights to the Montparnasse Cemetery version of The Kiss, and dealer Guillaume Duhamel and the French auction house Millon began a search to find Rachevskaïa’s descendants, whom they located in Ukraine.
In 2006, Duhamel claimed that he should be able to secure the work from the heirs, arousing fears that it could soon be headed to sale. The City of Paris declined that request, claiming that it was a cultural monument and was therefore immovable.
The current proceedings rest on technical details about the work—whether or not The Kiss was designed specifically with the grave in mind, for one. For now, Duhamel and Millon are trying to prove that they do not mean harm in removing the work. “They must stop presenting us as grave robbers,” Duhamel said.