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    Auction of Soviet art triggers probe; art market on guard

    The sale of nine Soviet-era masterpieces that fetched $3 million at a London auction in 2014 is causing uproar in Moscow's art community, where it was largely perceived as a theft of the family jewels.

    The sale of the paintings, one of which now has a place of pride in a Moscow oligarch's private museum, has triggered a criminal investigation.

    There also has been a push to re-nationalize the collection that once belonged to a Soviet artists' trade union. The dispute has also made it much more difficult to move Russian art across the border for sales or exhibitions.

    In recent months, several Ministry of Culture officials were fired, rules were tightened on the sale of Russian art abroad, and the Russian man who sold the artworks in London is under pressure to return a huge Soviet-era art collection to the government.

    The Soviet Union had no private property, with everything from factories and mansions to bakeries and schools owned by the state. After the regime collapsed in 1991, most of the property ended up in private hands in the chaotic and often crime-ridden privatization drive.

    Art was no exception.

    "For decades, Soviet art was worth nothing," says Milena Orlova, editor-in-chief of The Art Newspaper Russia, explaining that works by top Soviet artists like Alexander Deineka and Georgy Nissky could be bought for close to nothing in the 1990s. "Collections were sold off for a dime. They were sold off like junk."

    While bigger Russian institutions such as the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and major museums retained their state ownership, smaller collections ended up with obscure private organizations.

    Twenty-five years later, the government seems to be using the 2014 auction as a pretext to demand the return of some of what it considers to be the family jewels.

    The Soviet Artists' Union was a powerful lobbying group that owned a rich collection donated by member artists. But as the Soviet Union broke apart, the collection of more than 46,000 items was transferred to a nonprofit group of artists, the International Confederation of Artists' Unions, or ICAU.

    The Art Newspaper Russia, the country's top art publication, has written about the government's impending plans to reclaim the ownership of the ICAU's massive collection. The Culture Ministry wouldn't comment on these reports, but told The Associated Press — in an about-face from an earlier stance — that it now had "reasonable doubts" that the artists' group ever had the legal right to sell the masterpieces at Sotheby's.

    Yet a pre-auction exhibition of the ICAU's works in London was held with the Culture Ministry's support and the ministry a year later sponsored an exhibit of some of these works in Italy.

    Alexei Ananyev, a Russian billionaire who bought Georgy Nissky's "Under the Snowy Fields" for 1.8 million pounds ($2.2 million), the most expensive item of the ICAU's collection, is baffled why anyone would question the legality of the sale.

    "We think we bought it legally," he told the AP. "This painting has an immaculate provenance. It was acquired in 1964 and has since been the property of the Confederation, which is an NGO (nongovernmental organization) and can dispose of it as it sees fit."

    Ananyev is proud of his purchase and feels it's "part of the mission" of the Institute of Russian Realist Art, a private Moscow museum he opened in 2011, "to buy top works and bring them back to Russia."

    The auction, which was widely covered in the media, attracted the ire of many in the Russian art community who thought selling these masterpieces abroad was akin to disposing of family heirlooms.

    "The art community took it very painfully when those works were taken out of the country and put up for sale, because it was like someone took it from the Tretyakov Gallery and sold it," says Alexander Popov, director of a top Moscow art valuation firm, referring to one Russia's top state-owned galleries.

    Sotheby's told the AP in emailed comments that it is "cooperating fully" with Russian authorities "investigating some aspects of the activities of the ICAU." The auction house said that its Russia sales don't appear to have been affected by the scandal, pointing to a 50-percent increase in Russian art sales in November 2016 compared with a year earlier.

    The investigation launched last year discovered that "Under the Snowy Fields," one of the two Nissky works that Ananyev bought at that auction, was valued at just 800,000 rubles (under $14,000) by a ministry of culture expert, which was necessary for clearing customs. That means the government was paid a measly export duty on it. On top of that, the ICAU's head was granted a permit in his name to take the paintings out of the country as if he personally owned the collection.

    Five ministry officials who handled the documents for the ICAU's works have been fired and another reprimanded, the culture ministry told the AP. The scandal also triggered a purge of art valuers who hold state licenses to issue travel permits, with 125 names stricken off the nationwide list.

    ICAU chief Masut Fatkulin didn't respond to numerous calls seeking comment on the topic, although the ICAU in a statement to the AP confirmed reports of a police raid of their offices in January.

    In an interview with the Novaya Gazeta newspaper last year, Fatkulin defended the sale but admitted the group did not have a full inventory of the works they inherited from the Soviet Artists' Union. He vowed to make a proper inventory in the future.

    On the ground, the Russian investigation has made it difficult for art collectors and galleries to move art across the Russian border.

    "(After) that story with Nissky happened, several people got detained with undervalued declarations," says Popov. "Now everyone is afraid of taking responsibility for an export."

    Russian officials' attitudes seem to have shifted from turning a blind eye to shady art deals that dodge taxes to scrutinizing every shipment. People in the art community recall a flurry of recent examples of clients facing hurdles at the border or exhibitions of Russian art abroad derailed because of troubles with the authorities.

    "Oligarchs are leaving this market," says Popov. "They realize that if they buy a thing here, it practically becomes real estate. You can't move it out."

    A well-connected member of the art community told the AP the scandal around the Sotheby's sale is part of a long-standing dispute between the ICAU and the Tretyakov Gallery, which share a mammoth gallery on the Moscow River. The person, who asked to speak anonymously because of the sensitivity of the issue, said investigators turned their spotlight on Fatkulin because the Tretyakov started talking to officials about wanting to expand their space.

    The Tretyakov Gallery declined to comment on these reports.

    In January, the Art Newspaper reported the Russian government was drafting plans to reclaim the ICAU's Soviet art collection. The Culture Ministry, however, told the AP it was not aware of such plans.

    Ananyev, the art collector, fears efforts to renationalize the ICAU's collection means "these works could end up locked in museum depositories for years and will not be available for the general public."

    He said experts should seek a wider solution.

    "Maybe it would make sense to think about replenishing the collections" of private museums that have the resources and expertise to preserve art treasures, Ananyev suggested.

    ___

    Kate de Pury contributed to this report.

    Surprise! Johnny Depp appears as Jack Sparrow on Disney ride

    Some visitors to the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at California's Disneyland got a surprise: Captain Jack Sparrow himself.

    Johnny Depp donned the getup of his swashbuckling alter ego and interacted with riders on Wednesday. Videos taken by park goers and shared on social media show Depp chatting with fans as they passed by on the ride's boats. He also spoke to a crowd outside.

    Depp returns to the big screen as Sparrow next month in the fifth film based on the ride. "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales" opens May 26, after premiering at Shanghai Disneyland on May 11.

    Sgt. Pepper sketch to be auctioned May 20 in New York

    An old sketch up for auction May 20 at the Hard Rock Cafe in Manhattan is a crude, ink-on-paper drawing of the "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club" album cover. The artist is almost surely John Lennon.

    Julien's Auctions says the drawing was discovered by a former resident of the Weybridge house in England where Lennon lived from 1964 to 1968. The artwork is clearly an outline for the "Pepper" cover, showing the Beatles gathered around a drum, the group's name spelled out in front of them and circles in the back that would be filled in by such famous faces as Bob Dylan's and Oscar Wilde's.

    The drawing is undated. It could be a draft or an idle doodle from later on.

    James Patterson plans true crime book on Aaron Hernandez

    Aaron Hernandez, the former NFL player and convicted murderer found hanging by a bedsheet in prison last week, will be the subject of an upcoming true crime book by best-selling author James Patterson.

    Little, Brown and Co. told The Associated Press on Thursday that Patterson's book, not yet titled, is scheduled for early 2018. Patterson is also putting together a collection of true crime stories in partnership with Investigation Discovery, to come out on the TV network and in print next January.

    Patterson, one of the world's most popular and prolific novelists, said in a statement that he was "stunned" by Hernandez's death and wanted to know "what went wrong." He's donating a portion of his author proceeds to education and reading initiatives.

    WATCH: Adam Levine shares emotional tribute to Christina Grimmie on 'The Voice'

    Adam Levine will always miss his mentee Christina Grimmie.

    On Tuesday night, Levine and his current team on “The Voice,” Jesse Larson, Lilli Passero and Mark Isaiah, performed the Beatles hit “Hey Jude” in Grimmie’s honor.

    >> Watch the video here

    Before taking the stage, Levine addressed Grimmie’s parents and brother Marcus in the audience.

    “I loved her so much,” he started. “I miss her. It’s unfair that’s she’s not here. And, we’re going to sing her a little song tonight and I am going to sing every word to her in her honor. Thank you guys for being here. Christina, we love you.”

    >> Read more trending news

    Team Adam then took the stage for a stunning and emotional performance. By the end of the performance, the audience and fellow coaches were on their feet applauding the number.

    After the performance, Levine and host Carson Daly announced a new foundation that has been set up in her honor.

    The foundation will work to provide assistance – both emotional and financial – for families and individuals who suffer from the devastating effects of gun violence and will support families facing breast cancer diagnosis.

    Grimmie was killed in June 2016 after a man approached her after a concert in Orlando, Florida, and shot her. She was 22 years old. Levine was her coach on season 6 of “The Voice” and reportedly paid for her funeral.

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    Semi hits stroller with baby in it; 3-year-old in hospital

    A semi in Tacoma hit a stroller with a baby sitting inside it while her family walked on the sidewalk.

    The baby and her 3-year-old sister had to be pulled out from under the truck.

    >> Read more trending news

    The 3-year-old was in serious condition at Mary Bridge Children's Hospital. The mother and baby suffered minor injuries, police said.

    Police report the driver did not see the family as he was about to leave the parking lot. 

    Florida woman arrested after fight over xylophone gets ‘heated’

    An argument over a xylophone left a Florida man covered in grease.

    >> Read more trending news

    According to NWF Daily News, an unnamed 43-year-old woman was angered when a man in her kitchen refused to stop playing a xylophone and led the woman to dump grease on his head.

    >> Florida woman attacks boyfriend after he denies ‘sleepover’ request

    Okaloosa County Sheriff’s deputies arrived at the scene to find grease spots on the man’s clothing and a puddle on the floor near the xylophone.

    The woman was arrested.

    Read more at NWF Daily News.

    Missing monkey spotted again in Florida, resident says

    here has been another sighting of a monkey on the loose in Apopka. 

    The first sighting came in this past weekend, when a woman and her family saw it near Central and Michael Gladden boulevards.

    Wednesday’s sighting wasn't too far from where it was first found.

    PHOTOS: Monkeys roaming Silver Springs State Park

    A resident told Channel 9 she saw the rhesus macaque near a restaurant less than a block away from where it was originally seen.

    On Sunday, a woman tried to photograph the animal, but she drove off instead when she said it charged at her and her kids.

    The Central Florida Zoo deputy director said there's a big population that breed of monkey in Silver Springs in Ocala, and that the one wildlife officials are looking for could have been kicked out of its group and somehow made its way to Apopka.

    READ: This history of rhesus macaques in Marion County

    Wildlife officials said anyone who comes across the monkey shouldn’t stare at it or approach it, because the animal may see it as a sign of aggression.

    They also want the monkeys carry diseases like tuberculosis, hepatitis and herpes.

    Anyone who spots the monkey is asked to call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. 

    Firefighters rescue woman clinging to top of crane

    A woman in Toronto can thank firefighters for getting her down from a precarious perch.

    She had climbed a construction crane but then needed firefighters help getting down.

    >> Read more trending news

    When rescue crews arrived, she had been clinging on to a steel cable for at least four hours, The Associated Press reported.

    Crews strapped her to a firefighter who rappelled, bringing her safely to the ground.

    Officials do not know why the unnamed woman decided to climb the large crane, without the aid of safety equipment, in the middle of the night. She faces a mischief charge for her death-defying climb, The AP reported.

    Dog food recalled after samples test positive for euthanasia drug

    A dog food company has issued a nationwide recall after some samples tested positive for the euthanasia drug pentobarbital.

    Party Animal said in a recent news release that it is recalling two lots of its Cocolicious dog food after a Texas retailer said a customer had brought samples of the food to a testing lab, which detected the drug.

    The affected products, manufactured in 2015, include 13-ounce cans of Cocolicious Beef & Turkey dog food (Lot #0136E15204 04, best by July 2019) and Cocolicious Chicken & Beef dog food (Lot #0134E15 237 13, best by August 2019).

    >> Read more trending news

    "The safety of pets is and always will be our first priority," Party Animal said in a statement. "We sincerely regret the reports of the discomfort experienced by the pet who consumed this food."

    Customers who have the recalled products "should return them to the place of purchase and will of course receive a full refund," the company said.

    "Party Animal wishes to emphasize that we have submitted many recent lots of our beef flavors for testing and all have tested negative for any pentobarbital," the company added. "We have also had extensive discussions with our manufacturer regarding the potential cause of the reported contamination of the 2015 lots, and we will continue with such discussions even as we await testing results for the 2015 lots. In order to ensure adherence to our commitment to the safety of pets, we are also actively re-examining our manufacturing processes."

    Read more here.