Forgers have been retouching hundreds of works by minor European artists, putting the signatures of major Russian artists on them and selling them for many times their worth.
The first sign of trouble was the appearance of a painting at Sotheby’s London in May 2004 attributed to the famous Russian landscape painter Ivan Shishkin (1832–98). The star lot in the spring Russian sale, it was given a high estimate of £700,000 ($1.28 million) and was described in the catalogue as “a rare example of an important piece” completed during Shishkin’s sojourn in Switzerland.Unfortunately, the painting was not by Shishkin or any other Russian painter. It had been sold a year earlier by the auction house Bukowskis in Stockholm for $56,000, a fraction of the Sotheby’s estimate. At the Bukowskis sale, it was attributed, correctly, to the 19th-century Dutch painter Marinus Koekkoek. The painting was then sent to Moscow, where it underwent some changes. Four small human figures and a lamb were subtracted, and Shishkin’s signature was added. Thus Russified, the picture was taken to the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, where it was certified by the museum’s department of expertise as a rare example of Shishkin’s early work. Next, according to a reliable source in Moscow, the painting was resold and smuggled to London by its new owner, who put it up for sale at Sotheby’s. It was withdrawn the day before the auction.The incident surprised dealers and collectors in Russia, but they didn’t guess the extent of the fraud until the arrest last October of two gallery owners for selling doctored paintings. At about the same time, the Moscow art historian Vladimir Petrov revealed how vast the scope of the problem was. He had become suspicious even before the Sotheby’s auction that Western paintings were being sold as the works of Russians and had identified more than 100 such works. Executed by minor 19th-century realists—from Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Austria, England, and the Netherlands—they were bought on the Western art market for prices ranging from a few thousand dollars to about $50,000 or $60,000 and resold, after Russification, for sums as high as $100,000—rising, in rare cases, to more than $1 million.“The fakers have made incredible profits,” Petrov said in an interview with ARTnews in Moscow. “Canvases they bought for a few thousand euros were sold for hundreds of thousands. These people are criminals and have to be stopped.”Last October Tatiana and Igor Preobrazhensky, owners of the Russian Collection gallery in St. Petersburg, were arrested by Russian authorities in Moscow. Tatiana resisted arrest, according to press reports, and made a grab for a policeman’s gun, but she was disarmed before she could shoot. Both Preobrazhenskys were indicted for large-scale fraud, a crime that carries a maximum penalty of ten years in prison. Tatiana’s mother, Viktoria Khanina, told the press that the couple denied the charges and claimed they had been framed by an international crime group.A few years earlier the couple had been introduced to Valery Uzzhin, a wealthy Moscow businessman who was collecting 19th-century Russian art. Uzzhin was particularly interested in the works of Alexander Kiselev (1838–1911), a landscape painter who was a member of the Wanderers group. The Preobrazhenskys had a seemingly endless supply of canvases by his favorite artist, and over a three-year period they allegedly sold him $3 million worth. Some of his friends expressed doubts about the authenticity of his new acquisitions, but Uzzhin was convinced that the paintings were genuine. They had, after all, been certified by experts at the respected Grabar All-Russian Artistic Scientific Restoration Center in Moscow. Finally, a friend showed him a catalogue from a northern European auction house, in which Uzzhin saw reproductions of two paintings in his collection. But, to his astonishment, they were attributed to minor European artists—and the estimates attached to them were far lower than the prices he had paid for them.Uzzhin showed his collection to experts at the Moscow Art Consulting Center and was told that it consisted entirely of doctored 19th-century European paintings. He went to the police. After the Preobrazhensky arrests, police searched the premises of the Grabar Restoration Center and interrogated expert Tatiana Goryacheva, who had certified all of Uzzhin’s “Kiselevs.” Center director Alexei Vladimirov told the press that police had determined that its experts were duped. The investigation is still in an early stage. The police are looking for the people who supplied the doctored paintings to the Preobrazhenskys. They will not reveal the names of the suspects, some of whom, according to sources close to the investigation, have not yet been apprehended.The Preobrazhensky arrests gave rise to fantastic rumors in Russian art circles. The prominent contemporary-art dealer Marat Guelman, a former political consultant for the Kremlin, told ARTnews that the investigation into the business of Russified canvases began not because of Uzzhin’s discovery of the swindle but because one such painting was given to President Vladimir Putin. A guest in his home recognized it as a work he had seen under another name at a western European auction. When it was exposed, according to Guelman, Putin ordered that the crooks be found and punished.Petrov said that the Kiselev affair is the tip of the iceberg. A respected art historian and research fellow at the Tretyakov Gallery, he realized that he had authenticated a number of doctored paintings. He warned the owners of the pictures that he was withdrawing his certificates and intended to make his findings public. Immediately, he says, he began receiving threatening phone calls. After a few anonymous callers advised him to keep quiet if he valued his life, he went to the police. His visit coincided with the beginning of the Preobrazhensky investigation.Today Petrov moves around Moscow accompanied by two bodyguards. He talked to ARTnews in an art gallery belonging to trusted friends; a public place was considered too dangerous. Bearded, dressed in black, he walks with a cane but looks younger than his 60-some years.“Various people called and pretended that they were concerned about me,” he said. “It was ‘friendly’ advice: don’t talk too much or your life could be in danger. Then one day an art dealer visited me. Now he’s suspected by the investigators of being one of the suppliers of the Preobrazhensky family. He knew that I was a hunter, and he kept inviting me to go hunting with him and his friends: ‘It would be great! We’re going to hunt wild boar!’ I didn’t feel well and refused his generous offer. When I told this story to the police, they said that it was a lucky decision. There was a good chance that I would have been the one hunted during that hunting party.” Neither Petrov nor the police would reveal the name of the suspect.Attempts to silence Petrov weren’t limited to “friendly” phone calls. When he understood the scale of the fraud, he wrote an article explaining the situation and providing numerous illustrations of doctored paintings. It was to be published in the Moscow magazine Antikvarnoe Obozrenie (Antiquarian Review), but at the last moment it was withdrawn from the issue without explanation, causing Tatiana Garmash, an editor of the magazine, to resign in protest.Petrov started to give certificates of authenticity about ten years ago. “My certificate reflects my private opinion, and I do not give ironclad guaranties that my opinion is 100 percent correct,” he said. He is frank about his mistakes: “When I understood what was going on, it was not too difficult for me to identify my own errors.” He had had doubts about some of the paintings he authenticated and had demanded that their owners submit them for scientific analysis. These tests were conducted by the expertise departments of major Russian museums and restoration centers. In every case the pictures were judged authentic. “It was my mistake to rely on them,” Petrov commented. He began to be suspicious of doctored paintings before the Sotheby’s sale of 2004, but he made most of his discoveries last year. First, he concluded that 24 certificates he had issued were erroneous. Then, working with European auction catalogues and his immense archive, he found about 120 paintings that had been sold recently throughout Europe, from Vienna to Stockholm, which had been “magically” transformed into Russian artworks. “The travesty was so obvious,” he said. “I found some ‘twins’ just sitting in front of my computer and browsing the Internet: some of the paintings are posted both on auction Web sites under their real names and on other auction Web sites under fake Russian names.” Upgrading attributions is not a new practice. In Russia, “school of Levitan” landscapes have often been upgraded and attributed to the famous 19th-century painter himself. Trophy paintings stolen by Soviet troops in occupied Germany at the end of World War II occasionally appear on the Russian market with new signatures, Petrov said, but such cases are more the exception than the rule.“Of course the market was polluted with fakes before the mass repainting of western European canvases,” he said. For example, a painting of a troika by Nikolai Svertchkov (1817–98) was stolen by the Nazis during World War II from the Kiev Museum of Russian Art. It is still missing, but three copies of the painting have recently appeared on the market. A painting by Ilya Repin (1844–1930) depicting a wounded officer showed the same tendency to multiply. Versions were simultaneously offered at a Sotheby’s sale and to the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, Petrov said. But the mass conversion of artists from Dí¼sseldorf and Denmark to the Russian school is a recent phenomenon. It started a few years ago, when prices on the Russian art market began to soar.According to Petrov, some fakes are surprisingly obvious. For example, an old copy of John William Waterhouse’s 1888 masterpiece The Lady of Shalott—a famous and quintessentially English picture, now in the Tate Britain in London—was sold in Moscow with the signature of Viktor Vasnetsov (1848–1926) added and a new title, Princess Olga.Petrov was once asked to certify a painting purportedly by Alexander Makovsky (1869–1924). Examining the canvas in bright light, he discovered that the fakers had not even noticed the original signature. They had signed “Makovsky” in red paint in one corner but had failed to obliterate “Muller” in black paint in the other.Some of the converted paintings have been subjected to more complex manipulations. The fakers will erase or repaint any element that doesn’t look “Russian,” including human figures, houses, churches, or trees, as they did with the Koekkoek. Petrov showed this writer a painting he had mistakenly certified as a work by Vasily Polenov (1844–1927), which he subsequently discovered had been sold at the Dorotheum auction house in Vienna in November 2001 under its real identity: it was painted by Max Wilhelm Roman, a German artist. Its similarity to a typical Polenov landscape of northern Russia was achieved by wiping out the Roman aqueduct in the background, repainting the area as sky, varnishing it, and giving it a false craquelure.“These fakes are not primitive,” Petrov said. “It is necessary to have a very good eye and very good knowledge of the history of Russian painting to choose the perfect ‘twin’ painted by a European artist. Sometimes the fakers find a canvas with some details that are reminiscent of the works of this or that Russian painter, and they exploit such details.”Petrov was once shown a painting that was attributed to Alexei Savrasov (1830–97), a major Russian landscape painter about whom he has written two books. “I was stunned when I saw the canvas,” he said. “It was a typical work of the painter: the trees on both sides of an open space, an Orthodox church in the background, a few ravens in the foreground. Later it was discovered that the picture had been painted by a German artist. The only details in the original painting that reminded one of Savrasov’s hand were the trees. In the middle of the picture was a recognizable German house, which was removed to open up the space. The Orthodox church was added, and the ravens. As I discovered later, the ravens were borrowed from a sketch by Savrasov, which was seldom reproduced.”A painting by the Swiss-German painter Bernhard Studer, sold by the Dorotheum in 2001, reappeared in Moscow in 2004 masquerading under the name of the well-known artist Feodor Vasiliev (1850–73), having acquired Vasiliev’s signature and the date 1873. Human figures clad in obviously western European clothing had been removed from the landscape.A painting by the German artist Karl (Carl) Le Feubure depicting a farmhouse near a weir was sold by the Neumeister auction house in Munich. When it turned up in Moscow in 2004 as a work by Lev Kamenev (1833–86), the farmhouse had disappeared and the weir had become a pond. A group of Russian peasant girls and a boat had been added. Where the house had been, a herd of cows was grazing.A painting by the Danish artist Carl Carlsen, sold by Bruun Rasmussen Auctioneers in Copenhagen in 2004, was turned into a Kiselev in Moscow. The human figures were removed, the clouds were thinned, and the surface of the water was covered with duckweed, making the picture look like a typical river landscape by the Russian painter.Another tactic is to cut from an original canvas the detail that resembles the work of a specific Russian artist. A gallery at last year’s Moscow Antiquarian Fair showed a portrait of a woman attributed to Vladimir Lebedev (1895–1942), a well-known avant-garde artist. The portrait looked exactly like his paintings from the mid-1930s. Petrov discovered that it had been painted by Helge Helme, a Danish artist, and sold by Bruun Rasmussen. The original painting depicted a naked girl sitting on a bed. “Only the face of the girl was reminiscent of Lebedev’s manner,” Petrov said. “The way her body and the bed were painted was totally different. So the fakers cut out her head from the canvas, put it on a new stretcher, and signed it with Lebedev’s name.”According to Petrov, numerous canvases bought in Europe, and then taken to Russia and doctored, are now finding their way back to the West and appearing at major auctions in London and New York. The Sotheby’s sale in London from which the Koekkoek/Shishkin was withdrawn included other examples of Russified canvases not discovered by Sotheby’s experts, Petrov said.One of them was a painting titled Coastal Scene, Normandy, attributed to the Russian landscapist Alexei Bogolyubov (1824–96), estimated at $103,000/$130,000. In fact, this work was created by E. Zimmermans, an English artist, and sold under its real identity in 2002 by Stockholms Auktionsverk.Another work offered at the same sale, called Carrying the Urn and attributed to the Polish-Russian painter Vasily Kotarbinsky (1849–1921), had a more exciting provenance. The scene of two women and a child entering a mausoleum was actually painted by the German artist Gustav Daniel Budkowski. It was sold in 2003 by Ellekilde, an auction house in Copenhagen. In early 2004 it was offered for sale in Moscow with the added signature of the famous Russian academic painter Genrikh Semiradsky (1843–1902), but apparently it wasn’t convincing as a Semiradsky and didn’t sell. Next, Petrov said, the fakers downgraded it by replacing Semiradsky’s signature with Kotarbinsky’s. The painting went to Sotheby’s and was sold for Â£95,200 ($165,000).Jo Vickery, head of Sotheby’s Russian-art department in London, told ARTnews that both the “Shishkin” and the “Bogolyubov” had been authenticated by experts but withdrawn from sale when doubts arose about them. Of the “Kotarbinsky,” she said, “We considered this to be a work of particularly strong quality, and having checked the signature under [ultraviolet] light during the cataloguing process, we concluded that the painting was genuine.”“To prevent fakes from reaching the market,” Vickery continued, “Sotheby’s uses a number of authentication measures, including stylistic comparison, examination of available provenance, and whether the work is listed or published. Where necessary, Sotheby’s undertakes chemical testing of the signature or examines it under UV light or a microscope. Publication and worldwide distribution of Sotheby’s catalogues itself plays part of the authentication process, in that it allows widespread public scrutiny of the works before they are sold. Should a painting sold by Sotheby’s subsequently prove to be inauthentic, Sotheby’s policy is to cancel the sale and refund to the buyer the price paid.”Petrov unwittingly helped educate the fakers.Two alleged suppliers of “converted” Western paintings attended all of his lectures and asked him many questions about the painterly techniques of various Russian artists. “Only later did I understand the reason for their curiosity,” Petrov said. Another person sent him a stream of e-mails from Europe, attaching images of paintings and asking him if they looked like the works of certain Russian artists. They didn’t. Petrov soon decided that the correspondence was strange and stopped responding. “They even wanted to use me to help them find canvases similar to Russian paintings,” he said.Experts employed by prestigious Russian institutions—the Tretyakov Gallery, the State Russian Museum, the Grabar Restoration Center—certified the doctored paintings. Petrov and many other Russian art historians who were consulted think that state institutions such as these shouldn’t be involved in authenticating works they don’t own for a fee. In 1990 Petrov wrote to the Russian ministry of culture that “the fusion of state museums and the art market is intolerable.” He warned that it would lead inevitably to “mistakes for mercenary purposes” and corruption. Experts receiving large commissions for certificates of authenticity would become “accomplices of the Mafia.”Petrov has another concern aside from his worry about the purity of the Russian market. “The people who are doctoring Western paintings are civilized barbarians,” he said. “They are not only polluting the Russian art market and potentially endangering research into the history of Russian art. They are destroying the cultural heritage of Danes, Germans, Norwegians, and other Europeans. The paintings they are buying are relatively cheap, but they were painted by decent artists whose works are exhibited in museums. The fakers understand perfectly that the history of 19th-century northern European painting is not well known in Russia. For example, the last monograph dedicated to Scandinavian realist art was printed in Russia before the Revolution.”But the task of cleaning the Russian market is immense, Petrov said. If he found more than 120 “converted” paintings simply by browsing through auction catalogues, how many hundreds, he asked, were sold to Russian clients by private dealers throughout Europe? He and his colleagues have no idea how many minor masters of the school of Düsseldorf have posthumously become major painters of the school of Moscow.Konstantin Akinsha is a contributing editor of ARTnews. Additional reporting by Kelly Devine Thomas.