More than 4,000 paintings in the collection of the National Picture Gallery of Abkhazia have been destroyed in a fire, marking a tragic loss of cultural heritage in the Black Sea Caucasus region, which ceded from Georgia in the 1990s and is now under Russian control.

The fire started on January 21 in the capital city of Sukhumi. The blaze began in a bank before speeding to the nearby art gallery of the Union of Artists of Abkhazia, where the artworks were housed. The building was in a state of disrepair for years, without “a roof or doors,” wrote Ekho Kavkaza, a regional news platform associated with the media organization Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

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A video posted to X, formerly Twitter, by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty shows firefighters and civilians, including local artists, carrying charred paintings from the wreckage.

Abkhazia’s acting culture minister, Dinara Smyr, lamented the destruction in a statement—translated from Russian to English—saying, “The entire golden fund of Abkhazian artists is under threat.” 

Suram Sakaniya, director of the National Gallery, said in an interview with Ekho Kavkaza that “approximately 100 to 200” paintings largely dated to the Soviet era had survived, though about half had suffered burns or tears from fallen beams. Ceramics cracked from high temperatures, and “bronze statuettes and sculptures” housed inside melted, he said. 

Per the local outlet JAMnews, the losses include 300 works by Aleksandr Chachba-Sharvashidze, who is regarded as the first internationally recognized Abkhazian professional artist. As a stage designer, he collaborated with artists such as Alexandre Benois and Pablo Picasso, and worked with theaters across Russia and France. 

Smyr described the destruction of his works as “an irreparable loss for Abkhazia’s national culture.”

In the wake of the blaze, authorities with the gallery and state look to find a cause. Abkhazia’s prosecutor general’s office has launched a criminal investigation into the origins of the fire, and announced in a statement that arson has not been ruled out. Sakaniya told Apsnypress, a local news agency, that she believed the fire was sparked by a short circuit.

In a statement on Monday, President Salome Zourabichvili of Georgia pointed to “the neglect of cultural identity both by the de facto leadership and the Russian occupants.”

The fire was “a tragedy for us all,” Zourabichvili said.