What is the Russian avant-garde

Stay away from Russian art - this market is infested with counterfeiting

Art fakes are always good for scandals. However, only the tip of the iceberg makes the headlines - especially when it comes to the art of the Russian avant-garde. The iceberg of counterfeits will not melt away for a long time.

It can hardly be denied that the provenance is a decisive factor in the valuation of art. In the market for antiquities, it plays an essential role. Old master paintings with noble origins can easily multiply their market price. The art of classical modernism can also be marketed more effectively with evidence of a famous collection. But that does not seem to apply to works by the Russian avant-garde. Since the 1970s, some of them have been thrown on the market en bloc and without a certain origin, and even museums fall for problematic works.

Even the most recent events read like a scandalous chronicle. In the summer of 2013, two art dealers were arrested in Wiesbaden who had circulated hundreds of counterfeit works with fantasy origins in Germany, Spain and Switzerland. After three years of trial, the two defendants were sentenced in March 2018 to rather mild prison terms of up to three years because only three cases could be proven beyond doubt.

Seven alleged works by the Russian avant-garde from the collection of the Luxembourg lawyer Herbert Batliner, which had been on permanent loan to the Albertina in Vienna since 2006, turned out to be forgeries in autumn 2017. Historical documents and provenances were also missing here. Among other things, the collector had acquired works in galleries in Munich and Cologne, including the alleged “Color Dynamics” by Alexandra Exter and the alleged “Still Life with Guitar” by Liubow Popowa.

In autumn 2017, the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen announced in Düsseldorf that scientific material examinations of the Malevich painting “Black rectangle, red square”, which had been donated to the museum in 2014 by the heirs of Cologne art collector Wilhelm Hack, had revealed evidence of a forgery. The more than 40 drawings, which are a gift from the same source, are also under suspicion.

Counterfeit sold to Putin

The latest setting in a never-ending series of incidents of forgery is the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent, which showed an exhibition of 24 so-called works by the Russian avant-garde from the collection of the Russian couple Igor and Olga Toporowsky. The couple had already attracted attention in connection with a Moscow gallery scandal in which two paintings by Malevich and Kandinsky were sold to a Russian oligarch for three million dollars. The gallery in which these pictures ended up went to court because they themselves had sold a fake to Vladimir Putin.

On January 15, the Belgian daily De Standaard published an open letter from ten knowledgeable dealers, collectors and art historians who described the 24 Russian works on display as “highly questionable” and complained that they had no exhibition history and no mention in the specialist literature and have no verifiable market history. After a critical article in the "Art Newspaper" gazette, all the works were taken down and, according to the order of the Belgian Minister of Culture Sven Glatz, should be scientifically examined. All of these events are just the tip of an iceberg that won't melt anytime soon.

The problems only increased in the 1970s. They were hardly evident when Sotheby’s began auctioning Russian art from 1910 to 1930 in London from 1968. But if you leaf through the old auction catalogs, you will find almost no provenances and very few lots contain references to early exhibitions. Works by the figurative painter Natalia Goncharova and her contemporaries Michail Larionow and Liubow Popowa, Suprematist compositions by Ivan Kliun, gouaches by El Lissitzky and drawings by Kasimir Malewitsch, the most expensive of the Russian avant-garde artists, were particularly successful on the London auction floor.

While prices in 1974 were mainly in the sector up to £ 10,000, a corresponding Sotheby's auction in April 1989 sold £ 473,000 for an unsigned constructivist composition by Popowa and £ 759,000 for a composition by Alexandra Exter dated from 1912 the collection of the Greek collector George Costakis.

Costakis worked for the Canadian embassy in Moscow for nearly four decades. Since 1946 he had collected the art of the avant-garde years, which was ostracized and negated at the time. After his retirement in 1977 he planned to move to Athens and had to leave most of his collection to the Russian state. In 1982, on an exhibition tour of American cities, over 1000 works that Costakis had taken with him were shown. The luxury catalog published at the time is still considered the standard work of this art era. The collector died in 1990 and the heirs sold the works to the Greek state in 2000, which is showing them in the former Lazarist monastery in Thessaloniki.

The fame of this collection spurred the market early on. From 1968 until the 1990s, the Gmurzynska gallery in Cologne had arranged sales exhibitions in which Kandinsky, Lissitzky and Malewitsch figured. The public exhibition institutes were also committed to this long-neglected art. Waymarks are an exhibition in the Berlin Academy of the Arts in 1983 and the monster show “The Great Utopia” from 1992 in the Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum. When the "Berlin-Moscow" exhibition opened in Berlin's Martin-Gropius-Bau in 1996, there were already indications that, alongside flawless works from international museums, questionable exhibits from private collections were also being shown here. After all, there were exhibitions on the Russian art period that took place in Paris and London last year.

Real counterfeiting industry

At the moment when this art was realizing high prices on the international market, the counterfeiting industry was also rampant. Counterfeiting rings emerged in Russia and Western Europe, creating works on an industrial scale. In the 1980s it was reported from Moscow that even the Russian secret service had set up a counterfeiting workshop in which pictures in the style of market magnets from Alexej Jawlensky to Pavel Filonov were produced for the purpose of procuring foreign currency. Restorers in Moscow and St. Petersburg, who were able to “empathize” with style particularly well, were also named as the originators of forgeries. It is known that Russian forgers in Europe bought paintings by nameless contemporaries in order to cover them with old pigments. That alone complicates the analysis.

"The market is so terrible, you can't ask anyone," said a collector who was affected by buying false pictures back then. For almost forty years there have been thousands of counterfeits that are not always well made, some of which have ended up in top-class private collections and some even in museums. There are books about the Russian avant-garde that also include forgeries because they have already acquired a history through recent exhibitions. Among the Russian scientists there was and is a proud number who are notorious for their research attributions and certificates.

In addition, when asked about the authenticity of certain works, Russian and European experts often fundamentally contradict each other, which reinforces the already existing mistrust in this market. The Russian collector Petr Aven sums it up in an interview: “It is fatal for a market if it is contaminated. Because every new work is viewed with suspicion. " Today it is the scientists of the Moscow Tretyakov Gallery and the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg who enjoy an impeccable reputation.

Huge loss of trust

The general loss of confidence also hit the auction market in the mid-1990s. Works of avant-garde art that were to be auctioned at Sotheby’s in December 1995 were withdrawn shortly before the auction, even though they had guarantees of origin. There are no longer any special auctions for Russian avant-garde. The few Russian works of this time that are auctioned will be placed in the mixed auction with works of classical modernism.

The counterfeiting industry has shaken a basic trust in consignments of this species. Until their authenticity is proven, all major auction houses in the world today assume that all Russian avant-garde art offered in the country of origin and in Europe is false.

In some museums, including the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, their own collections of Russian avant-garde are now being processed in terms of art history. It will be interesting to see how many real works remain.