On April 26, the Russian News and Information Agency, RIA Novosti, hosted an unusual press conference in Moscow. It was concerned not with current affairs of state but with the publication in the West of two books devoted to the artist Natalia Goncharova, who died almost 50 years ago.
The books, by the English art historian Anthony Parton and the French cataloguist Denise Bazetoux, have aroused the fury of experts in the field of Russian avant-garde art, particularly in Russia, and most particularly at the Tretyakov Gallery, whose curators and researchers regard themselves as the guardians of Goncharova’s legacy. After months of grumbling among experts about the quantities of fakes illustrated in the Parton and Bazetoux books, the press conference was called to bring the matter into the open.
The financier and collector Peter Aven told the audience that a “criminal group” based in France and Switzerland was flooding the market with fake pictures, and called for a “criminal investigation” to discover the perpetrators.
Viktor Petrakov, head of the Russian government’s Department for the Protection of Cultural Property, told ARTnews that “after the press conference, we decided to address the French authorities, because Bazetoux’s catalogue raisonné oversteps all limits. Not only did she include numerous questionable ‘Goncharovas,’ but she reproduced works from Russian museum collections without permission.”
Petrakov said his department had prepared a letter to be sent to the French minister of the interior from the Russian minister of culture, Aleksandr Avdeev, requesting the French to act on the matter. Petrakov declined to elaborate, but another source told ARTnews that the French would be asked to investigate what the Russians charge is a criminal conspiracy to sell fake paintings.
Others on the podium at the press conference with Petrakov and Aven were Tretyakov Gallery director Irina Lebedeva and senior researcher Irina Vakar, art historian and publisher Andrei Sarabianov, and James Butterwick, a London dealer of Russian art. Experts in Russian art agree that more fake avant-garde pictures are circulating today than real ones (see “The Faking of the Russian Avant-Garde,” Summer 2009). As Goncharova’s prices have risen, the number of spurious works attributed to her has soared. She has become the world’s most expensive woman artist since her painting Espagnole (ca. 1916) fetched a record $10.6 million at Christie’s London in February 2010. At the same time, experts say, she and Aleksandra Exter have become the world’s two most faked women artists.
The Tretyakov curators have calculated the number of fakes in Parton’s book, Goncharova: The Art and Design of Natalia Goncharova, published last year by the London-based Antique Collectors’ Club, at about 150 of the approximately 600 works illustrated. But it was Bazetoux’s Natalia Gontcharova: son oeuvre entre tradition et modernité, published by the Brussels-based Arteprint in March of this year, that spurred the Tretyakov experts to act. They say that 60 to 70 percent of the approximately 1,500 works illustrated in her book are fakes.
Bazetoux, who lives near Paris, wrote in an e-mail to ARTnews that her answers to the Tretyakov Gallery’s attacks on her catalogue had already been provided through the International Chamber of Russian Modernism (InCoRM), a Paris-based organization to which both she and Parton belong, “as well as by the lawyer who has also responded to them in a letter addressed directly to the Tretyakov Gallery. I have nothing more to add.”
On the InCoRM website (incorm.org/forum), a post titled “Art Historians Viciously Attacked” claims that there is no “qualified art historian and expert dedicated to research on Natalia Goncharova’s work in Russia. . . . Anthony Parton and Denise Bazetoux, having devoted decades to the study of her work, remain the most highly qualified and scholarly authors and experts on the art of Natalia Goncharova.”
Art historians in Russia say that there are scholars in Moscow whose judgments are more reliable than those of Parton and Bazetoux. Parton wrote an important book on Mikhail Larionov, Goncharova’s husband, in 1993, but more recently he has issued numerous certificates authenticating questionable “Goncharovas,” according to several experts. Bazetoux, they said, was not previously known as an expert on Goncharova. Her publications are catalogues of the French painters Maximilien Luce, Henri Lebasque, and Georges Valmier.
InCoRM president Patricia Railing, an American-born art historian who lives near London, defended both Parton and Bazetoux as “honorable” scholars. Asked about Bazetoux’s expertise, Railing described her as “someone who specializes in doing catalogues raisonnés.”
Parton, a professor in the school of education at Durham University, sent ARTnews a long statement defending his book. He wrote, “I have been careful to base my decisions for inclusion in the book on stylistic grounds, scientific analyses, and wherever possible provenances.”
Tretyakov director Lebedeva told ARTnews: “For the museum, the publication of the Parton and Bazetoux books was a shock. We had a very sad feeling—an artist of the first rank and foremost importance for the Russian avant-garde didn’t deserve such treatment.”
The appearance of the books was particularly unwelcome, she said, because the museum has been working for some time on a major monographic exhibition that will give Goncharova her true place in Russian art history. Publication of the Parton and Bazetoux books “creates an unpleasant aura of scandal that will not benefit the artist’s reputation,” she added.
Lebedeva described both books as “stunningly sloppy, from the academic point of view.” The Tretyakov has published all of Goncharova’s works in its collection, she said, “and I remember how difficult and challenging this work was, how many discussions we had about every canvas. Unfortunately, this serious approach is absent” in the two new books. The Tretyakov owns 411 paintings by Goncharova and several thousand works on paper.
The Tretyakov has posted on its website a letter addressed to the Antique Collectors’ Club, which published Parton’s book. The letter, signed by Lebedeva, sums up what the Tretyakov curators—and other scholars—say are the deficiencies of both books. Most of the illustrations are of hitherto unknown works from anonymous private collections, “without provenance, exhibition history, and detailed catalogue description.” The vast majority have never been published before. “Moreover,” the letter continues, “we were surprised that Prof. Parton introducing these new paintings to the scientific audience did not explain at all where they came from. The author’s attributions . . . are not confirmed by any documents and are not based on facts.”
Both Bazetoux and Parton say they were protecting the anonymity of collectors who didn’t want their names revealed. “Many collectors do not wish their names to be made public,” Parton wrote in his statement to ARTnews. “I had to respect this.” Furthermore, “I do not provide provenances for any of the images in my book because my work is a critical monograph and not a catalogue raisonné.” Provenances and exhibition histories are “not relevant to a critical monograph,” he added.
The Tretyakov curators say that almost all of the fakes were manufactured according to the same pattern: a genuine work was multiplied many times over in fake copies, versions, and sketches in various media. But, the experts say, Goncharova didn’t make copies.
Speaking of Bazetoux, Petrakov told ARTnews, “Her tactics are simple. For example, she reproduced Laundresses from the Russian Museum and surrounded it with many variations of this painting that experts have never heard of. I’m sorry for the pun, but she transformed her catalogue into a real laundry.”
“Goncharova never did watercolor versions of her oil paintings,” said Aven, who owns one of the world’s best collections of Russian art of the late-19th and early-20th centuries. But, he said, the fakers “find old reproductions of paintings, some of them in my collection, and manufacture watercolor versions.”
Experts also say that both books lack standard catalogue information, such as descriptions of the backs of paintings, which in the case of Goncharova often yield important information. There are approximately 300 such “blind paintings” in Bazetoux’s book, the Tretyakov curators say, most of them dated by her to the first decade of the 20th century and signed in Latin script, which the artist, they say, used very rarely before she went to the West in 1915.
Fake pictures are often supplied with fake histories, experts say. The sellers “provide mythical provenances,” Aven told the press conference audience. “Usually such provenances mention some mysterious NKVD general. Once I checked a bunch of such provenances only to discover that such generals never existed. The names were invented. Everything was falsified from beginning to end.”
A vast amount of research has been done in connection with the Tretyakov’s upcoming Goncharova exhibition, but Parton, the curators say, didn’t examine the collection of the Tretyakov Gallery during his work on his book and is therefore unaware of all the new information.
As for Bazetoux, the curators say she has never contacted the Tretyakov Gallery and “does not know either the original works located here or the archive of Goncharova.” In her defense posted by InCoRM, Bazetoux says she tried to reach certain staff members at the museum but was unsuccessful. She said that she had consulted the “extensive Goncharova archives” of the Kandinsky Society in Paris.
“The books by Prof. Parton and Bazetoux are scientifically useless and fallacious,” the Tretyakov curators conclude in their letter, “and can’t be accepted as serious research, and give a false impression of one of the greatest artists of [the] Russian avant-garde.”
Goncharova and Larionov settled in Paris in 1915, where they became Sergei Diaghilev’s closest collaborators. Their association with Igor Stravinsky was especially important for the history of European ballet. In 1923, Goncharova created her famous decor and costumes for Les Noces, with music by Stravinsky and choreography by Bronislava Nijinska. Goncharova died in 1962 and Larionov in 1964, leaving their archive in the care of his second wife, Alexandra Tomilina. After her death, in 1985, the archive was spirited out of France by the Russian government and deposited in the Tretyakov Gallery (see “The Strange, Illegal Journey of the Larionov-Goncharova Archive,” March 1997). The Tretyakov curators believe they have a moral obligation to protect Goncharova’s legacy. In another letter they drafted, addressed to the Russian Ministry of Culture, which was made available to ARTnews, they assert their “moral right” to ask the ministry to deal with the problem “on the state level.”
Not everyone believes that the Tretyakov has the right to lead the crusade against Russian avant-garde fakes. Until 2006, when the practice was officially stopped, the Tretyakov was issuing certificates of authenticity “on a commercial basis,” according to one source who declined to be identified. “It is good that the problem of fakes certified in the West is finally being openly discussed,” this source said. “But the whole story reminds me of an old Russian saying: ‘A thief stole a hat from a thief.'” (The equivalent might be that people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.)
The Tretyakov curators and other experts say that many of the unknown works attributed to Goncharova that have appeared in recent years have been certified by Parton, Bazetoux, or French dealer Jean Chauvelin. Chauvelin did not reply to requests from ARTnews for comment.
The vast quantities of new fakes, the Tretyakov curators wrote in their letter to the Ministry of Culture, point to “a grand scale operation which has openly commercial aims, criminal in its essence.” The real evil, they wrote, is that the “distortion of the creative heritage of the artist by dissolving her real works in the mass of rough, clumsy, dull imitations damages the reputation of the great master.”
The effect of “such publications as the books of Parton and Bazetoux,” the curators conclude in the letter, is to “destroy efforts to popularize Russian art in the West and the rapprochement of our cultures.”
Aven told ARTnews that “the time of scholarly discussion has passed—now is the time for legal action.” He said that many of the fake artworks had been purchased by Russian collectors.
“In the near future,” Aven said, “thorough scientific analyses of these ‘masterpieces’ will be arranged, and according to the results, appropriate action will be taken.” Aven declined to elaborate.
Sylvia Hochfield is editor-at-large of ARTnews. Konstantin Akinsha is an ARTnews contributing editor.