Below is a translated version of the original interview in Russian by The Art Newspaper, the original can be found by following the link here .
Huge scandals associated with counterfeiting of Russian avant-garde broke out in the beginning of this year in Europe and Russia: dubious works exhibited in the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent, the research in the "Rostov Kremlin" which uncovered fakes among the museum exhibits and the surprising decision of the court in Wiesbaden in the case of the owners of the SMZ gallery, who were selling the controversial avant-garde paintings. Art critic, curator and researcher of the history of fakes Konstantin Akinsha shared the latest news from Ghent and talked about how scandals with fakes are reflected in the art market, the reputation of experts and the image of the country.
The exposition of dubious works of Russian avant-garde at the MSK, Ghent
At what stage is the investigation of the exhibition in Ghent and how do you think it will end?
Now it is difficult to say unequivocally, but I very much hope that the Belgian police will find a worthy solution. Since mid-March, an investigation was launched following the statement of four art dealers, claiming they had suffered in connection with this scandal. As part of the investigation, the Belgian police conducted a series of searches: in the MSK Ghent museum, which included controversial works in its exposition, Mr. Toporovsky's private home, who provided the museum with questionable work, and local officials. In any case, one real positive effect is already certain — I'm sure that now, European museums will be more attentive to such proposals.
The Foundation for the Study of the Russian Avant-Garde RARP (Russian Avant-Garde Research Project), which you are one of the founders of, has been around for several years already. Are there any results of its activities?
One of our projects, with the Tretyakov Gallery, is the full digitization of the Natalia Goncharova archive and it is already at the final stage. The second, which is more expensive and complicated is with the Ludwig Museum in Cologne — the technological analysis of the works of Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova, which is still ongoing. Essentially, a standard technological base for these two artists is being created. During the project, it became necessary to clarify the attribution of certain paintings from the Ludwig Museum itself, those studies led to very interesting results. For example, we discovered that some of the things in the Cologne collection were painted over. Under a landscape, for example, there is a portrait. This is an author's work, and it is impossible to separate them now, but technically the museum has not one but two paintings. Or, for example, we found out what Larionov acquired in Paris — canvases of student work which he likely paid pennies for, and painted his work on top of them. We have already assembled an excellent base for canvases, pigments, paints, craquelure and so on. Soon everything will be published online and anyone will be able to get acquainted with the results.
But it could cause the opposite effect, don’t you think?
In this regard, a discussion has already unfolded: what will happen if the swindlers use the results to create higher quality forgeries? They may use it, but as experience shows, this information doesn’t help crooks: the execution of fakes becomes too expensive of a pleasure. And hiding information in general doesn’t lead to anything good.
I have heard criticism from Russian art critics regarding the fund, saying it was too focused on Larionov and Goncharova and did not allocate funds for other projects.
We are a small fund, dependent on the money of sponsors, which in the current situation makes our work not easy. But we are also grantors, we are ready to help to source funds for projects within the framework of our interests, however, until now no one from Russia has approached us with their proposals.
Why are works of Russian avant-garde artists forged on such a massive scale?
There’s forgeries of everything, however the boom of fakes happened with Russia and the Russian avant-garde for many reasons. The first fakes appeared in the 1950s, as told by collectors George Kostaki and Valentin Vorobyov. But back then, the fakes were unique. The landslide of forgeries happened in the 1960s - early 1970s, this is due to the rising interest in the avant-garde. Russian avant-garde was discovered in the rest of the world after the Second World War, in the early 1960s. Several Western dealers were pioneers in this business. For example, the gallery of Gmurzynska and Bar-Gera in Cologne, Annely Juda in London, Leonard and Ingrid Hatton in America. The circumstances for this were ideal back then: Europe experienced the consequences of Nazism, Hitler's antimodernism, which among other things, destroyed art which was considered "degenerate."
In a wave of compassion for the victims ...
In a wave of compassion for the new art, which was opposed to the Nazi matrix! Russian avant-garde suited everyone. For the Left, it was proof that the accursed Stalin distorted Lenin's policy; For the CIA, it was a gift which was used as evidence in the struggle for freedom of creative expression.
And the iron curtain created a favorable environment for fakes, the origin of which can not be proved?
In fact, all of the avant-garde, which ended up in Europe or America at that time, lacked provenance! And when the customers asked about it, they were informed in a mysterious whisper: "Well, you know, this is Soviet Russia! How could we tell you, when the people who passed the work to us are in the hands of the KGB?”
There were really wild stories like the auction of the Kurt Benedict collection organized by Valli Korecki, a charismatic lady from Switzerland who claimed that a certain Kurt Benedict traveled to Soviet Russia during the preparation of the First Russian Art Exhibition held in the Berlin gallery Van Diemen in 1922. All of the items at the auction were fakes! The manufacture of fakes in Europe was plentiful. Nobody expected the iron curtain to collapse. It did collapse however, the archives were opened, the originals appeared, copies of which had been circulating around the auctions for several years. And so the scandals began.
But then a wave of interest in the avant-garde, and in the manufacture of its counterfeits, rose again?
Yes, I believe that Russian art historians and post-Soviet museums are responsible for this situation. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, museum staff for some reason decided that they could issue certificates on behalf of museums, confirming the authenticity of paintings. The scale of this phenomenon reached the intensity of the conveyor belts of Ford's plants. Even the leading Russian art historians could not escape the temptation. Therefore, a special thanks to those who have never sunk to the authentication of counterfeits, such as Selim Khan-Magomedov.
Is this a purely Russian phenomenon or did something similar happen in European museums?
Purely Russian! If any employee of a European museum allowed themselves to issue such a certificate, and even more so on a museum form, they would immediately lose his job. Eventually, after the case of the Prebrazhensky antiquarians sentenced to imprisonment for selling the fake landscapes of the Peredvizhnik Alexander Kiselev (which had supporting documents), the Ministry of Culture had to intervene in this process and officially forbid the issuing of certificates by museum establishments. But even now, on some small Western auctions, art objects with certificates issued by the Tretyakov Gallery or the Russian Museum, still appear almost ten years later.
Only Russian art critics are to blame, and the western ones remained white and fluffy?
The West has also produced more than than one generation of signatories. For example, the "expert" in Natalia Goncharova, Anthony Parton, who did not only write the notorious work about the artist which includes a huge number of reproduced fakes, but also personally signed several dubious certificates. Or Patricia Railing - she too issues a whole bunch of certificates and attempted to prove that there were no fakes. Just three months ago at the Brussels auction The Bru Sale, an amazing Suprematist Malevich was being sold, equipped with Railing’s expertise. I’m also familiar with the laboratory of Erhard Jagers in Germany, who authenticated the work which other researchers had serious doubts about.
From which regions do fakes come from to European markets most often?
The main producers, in my opinion, are Russia, Israel, Germany and France. And scandals with fakes are happening all over Europe. We have already spoken about Belgium. Düsseldorf Museum was forced to confirm that the Suprematist composition of Kazimir Malevich, obtained from the collection of Harald Hack, was a fake, and it seems to be of Russian origin. In parallel, Finland ends the so-called “case of 15 million euros”. Counterfeits were made in Finland, however all of the accompanying documentation was made in Russia, and dozens of Russian art critics were making statements.
Is there a difference between counterfeits made in different countries?
Rather than differences, they have similarities, especially noticeable in the recent years: now that forgeries of very poor quality have appeared on the market. The mistakes they make are amazing. I'm not even talking about the real tragedy of forgers — the old Russian spelling. It’s almost like an anecdote, as in the case of the exhibition in Mantua. There were all kinds of fakes, completely horrific, but one picture was simply shocking, and in a way endearing. Some “craftsmen” decided to remake Nathan Altman's work "Petrocommune" and the word "commune" was spelled with one "m". In Russian and French, from where the word came to us, the "commune" is written with two "m", and in Italian — with one. Or, for example, one of the smaller Munich auctions began to sell the works of "unknown artists of the Russian avant-garde", apparently of such poor quality that it was difficult to attribute them to famous masters. They were selling a still life "Games", dated 1920s. Everything was as it should be: the tubes, chess, cards, and in the middle there was an ashtray with a burning cigarette with a filter! Although even a semi-literate person knows that the first filtered cigarettes were produced no earlier than in the late 1930s.
The main problem with so many counterfeits is that the art history is distorted, artists are being destroyed. After all, if Olga Rozanova painted about 100 oil paintings during her short life and created 200 drawings and sketches, and almost a hundred fakes have already been thrown into the market, it means that her art is devalued by almost a third!
Yes, there is a clogging, a distortion of art history. Therefore, serious research is needed, the creation of standards for technological research and, of course, work with provenance. It has long been time to forget all these tales of grandmother's chests and abandoned lofts, about museum items thrown out by Bolsheviks and distribution of these works to passing citizens ... In my opinion, it's time to create a system for authenticating the Russian avant-garde, like that which was created for art objects which were lost during the Second World War.
And is the legislation ready for this? Judging by the latest cases, Wiesbaden for example, fraudsters leave the court almost unpunished.
This is a common problem. Such processes are a huge challenge for the courts, and even for simple police operations. For example, within the framework of the Wiesbaden case, the German police confiscated almost 2,000 items. But the German police alone can not conduct a technical and chemical analysis of all the paintings, if just one examination costs about €7 thousand! In addition, before the court, one side brings some experts, the other side brings others, and the judge is not an expert in these matters. As a result, the accused dealers received an unexpectedly mild punishment. The legislation in this area has to be changed.
At the end of this year or early next year, a large international conference on counterfeits is planned?
Yes, this is my idea, I hope that it will work out. I would very much like to discuss with the museum workers the problem of museum collections and the Russian avant-garde: what is in the collection, are there any doubtful things, how to find out and what to do about it, how to inspect items at exhibitions, what research to carry out inside the establishment, how to test provenances. Museums are ready for this. I have already spoken about Malevich from the Düsseldorf Museum. Another example: the Museum of Modern Art Berlinische Galerie found 14 counterfeit works in its collection, including the counter-relief of Vladimir Lebedev, donated by the collectors mentioned above as well as the art dealers Valli Korecki and her son Clemens. You mentioned yourself the story of the Rostov Kremlin, where they discovered that two paintings have been replaced for copies 40 years ago.
I have heard that Russian experts are afraid that they will not be invited. But holding a conference without Russia's participation is ridiculous.
First, we need to organize such a conference, then we will decide who to invite. Of course, we will invite the heads of leading museums. Because this is not just a question of trust, it is a matter of verification technology. For Russia, where most Russian avant-garde artists don’t have catalogs-raisonne, where there are practically no absolute authorities in this field, this is especially important.