NEW YORK—Despite serious concerns about the provenance of a Russian artwork—raised just days before the work went on the auction block—it sold for £420,000 ($722,400) to a Russian buyer.
The picture In the Dukhan, Imaginary Journey to Turkey, by Mikhail Larionov (1881-1964), was a highlight of the Russian art sale on Nov. 28 at the MacDougall auction house, London. Estimated at £250,000/350,000, the painting had been authenticated by art historian Anthony Parton, Larionov’s biographer and compiler of a forthcoming catalogue raisonné, who wrote that the work was “one of Larionov’s most significant paintings from 1910.” Larionov and his wife, Natalia Goncharova, were major figures of the Russian avant-garde. They settled in Paris in 1917.
According to the MacDougall catalogue, the painting had belonged to the State Museum of Art in Baku, the capital of the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, and later to a private collector. This provenance immediately drew the attention of museum and cultural officials in the former Soviet Union.
The catalogue stated further that the painting had been left in Russia by Larionov and later distributed by Soviet cultural authorities to the republic of Azerbaijan in 1964. However, none of the former Soviet republics has a law allowing museums to deaccession objects. Thus, the painting could have been transferred from a museum to a private collection only if it had been stolen.
News of the forthcoming sale provoked consternation in Baku. On Nov. 23 Israfil Israfilov, director of the Baku museum, sent a letter to MacDougall stating that the information published in the catalogue was erroneous. The museum owns just one painting by Larionov, a landscape dated 1910, but it is still on the museum wall.
According to the Azeri minister of culture, Polad Bulbuloglu, MacDougall did not respond to the letter. On Nov. 25 the Ministry of Culture contacted the republic’s embassy in London, and the Azeri ambassador sent a letter to MacDougall. In a phone conversation with the ambassador, a representative of the auction house stated that MacDougall had a document, signed by Ibragim Zeinalov, the former director of the museum, proving that the painting had belonged to the Baku museum.
The ministry asked for a copy of the document, but it was not provided. Zeinalov stated that the painting in question had never been in the museum’s collection and that he had never signed any documents relating to the work at the request of the London auction house.
On Nov. 30, two days after the sale, Polad Bulbuloglu, sent a letter to Interpol asking that organization to inform the new owner of the painting that its attribution was highly questionable.
Ekaterina MacDougall, director of the auction house, told the newspaper Kommersant that if the information published in the catalogue was proved false, the transaction would be invalidated. According to a reliable source, the work was bought by the wife of a powerful Russian oligarch.