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By John Helmer, Moscow

Never was a Russian design more nobly intended for the edification of London’s upper class since Karl Marx scribbled away at the British Museum Library. Never were the fetish of the object and the alienation of labor more artfully combined. Had Mr Bean done it, the Prime Minister and the Mayor of London, maybe a naked prince and duchess too, would have fallen over each other to be photographed shaking the artful dodger’s hand.

And how modest the graffito: “Vladimir Umanets 12 A Potential Piece of Yellowism”. Imagine if Karl had scribbled “you have nothing to lose but your potential chains”. Who would have united for that? Would we be bitterly complaining the Romanovs alive and still on their thrones?

It’s possible that when Маркус Яковлевич Роткович (aka Mark Rothko) made a gift of his painting, “Black on Maroon” to the Tate Gallery, he was thinking of the advertising value for his art it would have with a clientele he despised less than the upper class eatery for which the painting had originally been done – the Seagram distiller company’s commission for the Four Seasons Restaurant at 375 Park Avenue, New York.

The fee for painting it (plus several others as a set) was $35,000 in 1958 money. That’s about $280,000 today. Rothko gave the money back, when he took the painting and gave it away.

According to the London prosecutor who aims to send to prison the man who on Sunday scribbled his own small work on a corner of the “Black on Maroon” is now worth £50 million. That’s the equivalent of $80 million. Divide the increase in capital value by the 54 years which have elapsed, and Rothko’s painting has generated an annual rate of return of 42.3%. Not even the Seagram building, the most costly in New York at the time, has appreciated at that rate. The extra publicity generated by the graffito is likely to accelerate this rate of appreciation faster than the 0.2% rate the canvass was gaining every day. How then can Vladimir Umanets be convicted on the charge of “criminal damage”? If he’s guilty of one count of criminally adding value to an object of more than £5,000 in original value, according to the charge sheet, how about Rothko himself? Between the two of them, if “Black on Maroon” is now worth more than it was last Sunday — much more than it will cost the Tate to efface Vladimir’s markings, if they are foolish enough to try – there is no evidence of damage.

Some of the most virulently anti-Russian newspapers, the London Telegraph for example, have been reporting the perpetrator’s name in the Polish form, Wlodzimierz Umaniec. But the graffito testifies to itself. “Vladimir Umanets 12 A Potential Piece of Yellowism.”

Not even the Guardian, which can find President Vladimir Putin’s hand behind every evil deed done, has put its ace reporters on the track of Umanets (in Russian the name means, literally, “no brain”) to determine there was a Kremlin plot behind his act. Umanets is on remand, and his trial isn’t until October 16. So there’s still time to coach him into making political admissions, even if the job is beyond Boris Berezovsky’s budget now.

For the time being, Umanets is doing his best to advertise the one thing his black marker pen on the red-based maroon can’t do — that’s to yellowize it. A practical problem which the 26-year old artist will have plenty of time to solve. And if he needs a pass card to get out of jail, let him tell the magistrate in Rothko’s words: “As an artist you have to be a thief and steal a place for yourself on the rich man’s wall.” Case dismissed. Vladimir and Mark win, and take home money too!

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