A Lithuanian collector is shutting his espionage museum in Manhattan after less than two years, citing the pandemic.
By Sarah Bahr
Julius Urbaitis had a grand plan: Take his collection of K.G.B. memorabilia, acquired over three decades, and create a museum in Downtown Manhattan. People would come from all over the world to admire Cold War relics like a gun masquerading as a tube of lipstick, a replica of an umbrella with a hidden poison needle and a bronze desk lamp that supposedly sat in Joseph Stalin’s villa.
The 57-year-old Lithuanian collector filled a warehouselike space in Chelsea with more than 3,500 artifacts related to the K.G.B., the Soviet Union’s intelligence agency and secret police. “My daughter and I have invested a lot of work, energy, heart and many years of collecting artifacts,” Mr. Urbaitis wrote in an email on Tuesday.
But now that dream is dashed.
Mr. Urbaitis said that the K.G.B. Espionage Museum, which opened less than two years ago, is closing permanently and putting up for auction almost its entire collection — billed as the world’s largest — after the pandemic made its operations unsustainable. The museum has been shut since March. “It was a difficult decision,” he said.
Mr. Urbaitis filled the museum, which was a for-profit institution, with items from his personal collection, like a listening device used by Adolf Hitler, and artifacts and replicas acquired specifically for the museum. He enlisted his daughter, Agne Urbaityte, 30, to serve as co-curator. (The father-daughter duo do not own the museum; the owners have chosen to remain anonymous.)
The museum included interactive exhibits like a model of a chair used for interrogations and a re-creation of an officer’s work space. It also included original artifacts, like the doors from a K.G.B. prison. Exhibits explained how Soviet intelligence agents pulled off their surveillance, from embedding recording devices in rings, cuff links and dishes to hiding cameras in belt buckles.
Mr. Urbaitis said he initially feared the museum would not be understood and embraced by visitors. To him, the museum’s mission was educational: It intended to show the history of the Cold War era and K.G.B. technologies. “From the first day of the museum’s operation, we have had a huge sign that we are apolitical,” he added.
He need not have worried, he said: By his measure, the institution was “very successful” in attracting visitors who paid $25 to enter.
But it never gained the level of recognition as other Manhattan museums, and it attracted criticism for its hands-off political stance. “The genocidal history of the Soviet regime that undergirds the history of it all can easily get lost in the whole Spy vs. Spy, Get Smart, ‘Moose and Squirrel’ vibe,” a Smithsonian Magazine writer wrote shortly after it opened.
And there was a dust-up with the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., which sued the New York institution in January 2019 after it used a similar color scheme and temporarily listed the phone number of the Washington museum on its website. The International Spy Museum also objected to the K.G.B. museum’s use of a“.org” web address even though it is a for-profit institution. (The lawsuit was settled in March 2019; the terms were not disclosed.)
Martin Nolan, the executive director at Julien’s Auctions, which is conducting the sale in Beverly Hills, Calif., in February, said the museum’s collection includes more than 300 lots estimated to fetch anywhere from a few hundred dollars to $12,000. That high estimate is for a Soviet Fialka code cipher machine, which is capable of producing around 590 quadrillion possible combinations. Also up for sale are a handbag with a concealed camera, an “Infected Area” railway sign used to identify radioactive or diseased zones and a steel door from a K.G.B. prison.
Mr. Nolan said he anticipates the auction will attract both Russians interested in Soviet history and James Bond fans. “There’s a lot of curiosity and fascination around espionage items right now,” he said. “Especially with the talk about Russian interference in the election.”
In 2014, Mr. Urbaitis founded another K.G.B. museum, called the Atomic K.G.B. Bunker, in a former nuclear fortification in Lithuania. That museum, he said, will now be his focus.
Still, he thinks the collection from the New York museum will end up in good hands. “The exhibits will go to the museums of the world and to the hands of serious, authoritative and rich collectors,” he said.
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