Forgeries make sales on the back of Russian art rally

 (RIA Novosti commentator Anatoly Korolev). –

Vladimir Petrov, an expert with the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and an irreproachable authority on the art of the 19th century, made record headlines in the last years by stating that “the art academic community is facing a huge problem as foreign artists’ masterpieces have been too often re-painted recently” at an art conference late last year.

Extensive footage successfully proved Petrov’s point. All paintings shown in his film turned out to be high-class fakes.

Technically, Petrov said, the fakes were so close to the original that he himself had been astonished to see how a German artist Larssen mysteriously turned into great Russian Pryanishnikov, and some unknown English “marines” were sold as Alexei Bogolyubov’s landscapes. The technology probably involved state-of-the-art chemistry to fake paints and electronic microscopy to copy the brushstroke manner and the signature.

Chemical similarity was so close that the fake fooled even the Grabar Center, Russia’s No 1 arts restoration and expertise institution. With Grabar’s certificate of authenticity, the fake went to London in a hurry for another Russian week. Petrov himself confessed to some false certifications.

Many Russian paintings sold during the recent art weeks as Aivazovsky, Shishkin, and other titans of the past were apparently fake, he said. Last May, a $1,000,000 Shishkin landscape was withdrawn 30 minutes before the auction. Repin’s works, notably the famous “Zaporozhian Cossacks of Ukraine Writing a Letter to the Turkish Sultan” and “Easter Procession in Kursk Region”, were also implicated with a wave of fake sketches, variations, drafts, and fragments being on top of arts news and sales charts throughout Europe.

“I found European sources under 120 canvases sold as Russians. The market is probably worth hundreds of millions of dollars,” Petrov said, sending shockwaves that led to a burst of arrests. 

Tatyana and Igor Preobrazhenskys, the owners of Russian Collection, a high-profile St. Petersburg gallery that had just moved to downtown Moscow street of Okhotny Ryad, a minute’s walk from the Kremlin, were the first to find their paintings under tight scrutiny and themselves behind bars as advanced chemical analysis proved that what was sold as a big collection of Peredvizhnik Alexander Kiselev was in fact a collection of very aptly made forgeries.

This gave the police an outline of a huge conspiracy. What is known to date is that stories of most fakes began in Western Europe where cheap works of some obscure – most often 19th century Danish - artists were bought through local art power brokers wholesale. They were brought to Russia and gave way to fakes of greatest Russian artists. The genuine canvas of the 19th century helped to fool most experts and sell the painting at a prestigious auction – like Sotheby’s Russian art auction weeks in London – to inexperienced nouveau riches at six-digit prices.

Not only masterpieces but also artists’ lives were forged. In one such disclosure, a vivid example of tremors the police sent across the arts community, Kazimir Malevich’s disciple Nina Kogan sold as “the Master’s re-emerged most exuberant follower” turned out to be a student who really did some painting in her younger years but soon gave it up.

The book world also gives a humble contribution to a broader arts debate.

As an 11-volume collection of Boris Pasternak’s writings (Slovo, Moscow) was presented recently in one of Moscow book chain Bukberi stores, the writer’s son Yevgeny Pasternak, who attended the ceremony, complained too many manuscripts ostensibly written by his father but having apparently little to do with him had been sold in the West.

A document described by Sotheby’s as an author’s manuscript of Doctor Zhivago, Yevgeny said, had been sent to him to ensure authenticity. He warned traders that anything sold under Zhivago’s name must have been a patent forgery, what with his father having burnt all drafts of the novel. Despite this, he complained, the paper was successfully sold at a five-digit price.

This leads us to one gruesome though necessary conclusion: unfortunately, arts traders, however high profile they might keep, need money as much as anyone. The money comes less from being clean than from making record sales – something where Russian weeks are hard to beat nowadays. And the reality is, if you go for one, you lose the other.