More Demand, More Questions

As the market grows for Russian and Eastern European art, forgeries proliferate.

A painting attributed to a prominent Eastern European Jewish artist that sold at Christie’s London last November 29 for $198,450 is a fake, a number of experts say. The work, called Pogrom, is attributed in the sale catalogue to Issachar Ber Ryback (1897–1935) and shows two bearded Jews fleeing, with Torah scrolls cradled in their arms. It more than doubled its high estimate of $78,200 to reach a price much higher than any previously paid for this artist’s work.

Secondary painters of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who not long ago were known only to specialists in Eastern European art have become desirable commodities, but increased demand in recent years has led to a proliferation of fakes. Experts say that almost every auction and exhibition includes them.

After a request from ARTnews for comment, Christie’s spokesperson Toby Usnik said, “At this time we have no reason to doubt the authenticity of this painting, but given your query we are looking into the matter. We will let you know when we have any new information.”

Ryback was a Ukrainian Jewish painter, illustrator, and theater designer who founded the arts section of the Kultur-Lige (Culture League) in Kiev, an organization that aimed to promote a modern Jewish culture. In 1921 he immigrated to Berlin and in 1926 to Paris. His best-known works are paintings of Ukrainian Jewish shtetl life and characters.

The attribution to Ryback of this painting, however, didn’t go unchallenged. Margalit Kafri, who works with the Tel Aviv dealer Yaron Lavitz, told ARTnews in a telephone interview that she called Christie’s twice before the sale on behalf of Lavitz, who is a Ryback specialist, to inform the auction house that the work was not by this artist. “They told me that they had a certificate—they didn’t say from whom—and they were not going to take it out of the sale just because some woman from Israel was calling to say that the work was not good,” Kafri said.

The same picture—or at least the same image, in a slightly different size—was sold for $3,700 at Christie’s Amsterdam on June 19, 1991, where it was attributed to Stanislaus Bender and called Saving the Torah Scrolls. Complicating the situation, a third and slightly larger version had been sold at Sotheby’s New York on June 25, 1990, for $35,750. This one was attributed to Bender and was called Saving the Torahs. Bender, born in Lodz in the Russian Empire (now Poland) in 1882, was another well-known member of the Kultur-Lige.

Hillel (Gregory) Kazovsky, an expert on the work of Eastern European Jewish artists, author of The Artists of the Kultur-Lige (Gesharim, 2003), and director to be of the planned Jewish Museum in Moscow, told ARTnews that the painting sold at Sotheby’s in 1990 is correctly attributed to Bender. The work sold at Christie’s last November and attributed to Ryback, he said, is a “bad copy of the work of Stanislaus Bender.”

Bender’s Saving the Torahs, Kazovsky said, “is an icon of Eastern European Jewish art of the beginning of the 20th century. It was reproduced in a portfolio of Bender’s works published in Vienna in 1918 or 1919, and then in the magazine Menorah, published in Paris. It was reproduced on dozens of postcards published all around Europe, from Vilnius to Vienna. It was frequently copied at the beginning of the century.” Kazovsky said he had recently seen new copies of the work, and he believed that the canvas sold at Christie’s London last November was one of them.

Another painting with a Jewish theme was withdrawn before the sale. The work, attributed to the avant-garde artist Natalia Goncharova and estimated to fetch from $560,000 to $930,000, depicts the ceremony of matchmaking in a Ukrainian shtetl. It shows the prospective bridegroom, red rose in hand, looking yearningly toward his beloved in a window while a fiddler provides music. Matchmaking, according to the catalogue, “belongs to an important series of canvases depicting Jewish life and reveals a mature facet of the artist’s Neo-Primitivism.”

But experts raised doubts about the picture. It wasn’t only the anomalous red rose carried by the groom that seemed out of place. Goncharova wasn’t Jewish, and her Jewish canvases are not ethnographically precise. It was the poor quality of the painting, according to experts, and the apparent pastiche of details from a number of her works.

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