The story below is a translated interview with Toporovsky with added commentary by Andrei Sarabyanov and other experts in the field of Russian avant-garde. The original transcript in Russian can be found by followng the link to the original piece.
“In light of the controversy in the art world, caused by the exhibition in Ghent, “Medusa” has decided to ask the art historian, collector, expert in 20th century Russian art as well as writer and editor of the “Encyclopedia of Russian Avant-Garde”, Andrey Sarabyanov to comment of some of the answers of Igor Toporovsky.
In addition, on some issues, Medusa received comments from the director of the Kharkiv Art Museum, Valentina Myzgina as well as Irina Vakar, a senior research fellow of Department of Early to mid 20th century painting at the Tretyakov Gallery, an expert on Russian avant-garde. (Although Vakar declined to comment on Toporovsky’s collection as a whole.)
Alexandra Shatskikh, one of the leading specialists in the work of Malevich, who signed the open letter, refused to give a statement.
So you are an art critic, culturologist, collector?
Igor Toporovsky: I am a professional historian and collector, I'm also a specialist and a researcher of my collection. But you know, talking about status is meaningless because it's not determined by the person themselves, but by those around them. I am currently preparing several publications [dedicated to my collection] when they’re published, let's see what their assessment by the scientific community will be.
Andrei Sarabyanov: In the circle of people who are involved with the Russian avant-garde, the name of Igor Toporovsky is generally unknown to anyone. I just can’t believe this to be true. I know almost all of the collectors and all of the specialists in the Russian avant-garde, not only in Russia, but also abroad, yet I have never heard the name of Toporovsky. A person can not accumulate a collection of works of such magnitude, and remain unknown to anyone for so long. This is absolutely impossible.
Do I understand correctly: for someone to call themselves an expert in art history, he should have a scientific degree or publications on the topic?
Igor Toporovsky: A person who claims that he is an art historian should have a fairly broad, basic education including art history, philosophy and general history. If they begin to engage in this professionally, they then would prepare publications suitable to their professional interests, they would choose a topic and then start working on it. As for the status of an expert in the field of painting - this is a slightly different story. People who are professional experts in that field should also have a basic education, but due to their practice they don't have any scientific publications at all - this is a completely different kind of work.
Do you have any scientific publications on art?
Igor Toporovsky: No. Because I really dedicated myself to my collection as well as my work, I worked in museums for ten years, my publications are only now being prepared and will appear simultaneously with the foundation's website. In them will be featured the works from my collection.
So, this will be your debut?
Igor Toporovsky: I believe so, yes.
How well known are you in the Russian art community?
Igor Toporovsky: I can not place myself in this community. Back in the day I spent time with many respected art critics: the late professors Pospelov, Turchin, Strigalev. There are people whom I know personally.
Sarabyanov: These professors have already passed away and can not confirm whether they knew Toporovsky. They truly were famous scientists, authors of many books and articles, but it is impossible to prove that he was in contact with them.
Were you their student? Did you attend their lectures?
Toporovsky: No we just talked, if I may say, as colleagues, discussing scientific issues.
Questions of the Russian avant-garde?
Toporovsky: Of course. I have always been interested in this topic. Incidentally, for these professors it was an exceptionally difficult mission. The market has really left a stain on their reputation.
In what sense?
Toporovsky: These respected people published their papers, and they got dismissed and accused of lying. This was done by art dealers, who needed to control the market. When Valery Turchin published his monograph on Kandinsky ["Kandinsky in Russia"], such a scandal occurred, that the sale of this book was almost banned, although he was a professor at the Moscow University, head of the department of Russian art, academic at the Academy of Arts and respected among real professionals.
What made the art dealers question the book?
Igor Toporovsky: Art dealers don't want new authorities to appear. They need one person who has the monopoly on the authentication of works. In situations where the work is sold for astronomical, unreasonable prices, art dealers seek to destroy everything else, leave the field scorched. And when there are people who do not agree with the tactics of the destruction of national art, they are criticized and defamed. I read several interviews with dealers, in which they spoke very dismissively about the professors Turchin, Pospelov and so on.
Sarabyanov: I have never heard of anyone questioning Turchin's monograph. It's like a fragment of his imagination. All the paintings that are mentioned in Turchin’s book about Kandinsky, I just leafed through it, are in museums, with the exception of two which are in private collections. Perhaps, this is about them, but I do not remember them ever causing controversy. This kind of thing happens in the art world: some say that the picture is genuine, others do not agree with them, but there was no scandal around it, and there was absolutely no talk about banning the sale of the book.
I wonder still, why does your name not ring a bell in the ears of Russian art historians and avant-garde specialists?
Toporovsky: The answer is very simple: I never wanted to enter the so-called art world, to be considered a collector. I communicated only with the people I had encountered while dealing with various issues. I was not interested then, and am not interested now in achieving a special status in the art world. In the coming years, I will present my scientific writing and reveal my entire collection. I do not demand any recognition, everybody will express their own opinion.
According to you, you own a significant collection of Russian avant-garde, and I do not quite understand how in all those years of collecting it, you did not cross paths with experts on the topic, their range is rather narrow.
Toporovsky: Art collectors cross paths with art historians when they need to get a certificate to sell something. If you interview art historians, they will name all of the art dealers in Moscow and St. Petersburg. I wasn’t interested in selling.
Sarabyanov: Toporovsky may not have communicated with art historians, but how could such a collection remain hidden for so many years? Nobody has heard anything about it, ever.
When you acquired works for your collection, surely you must have had to confirm their authenticity?
Toporovski: I did confirm, based on my own visual experience as well as the documents which I was shown.
So you didn’t seek help from specialists in Kandinsky or Malevich?
Toporovski: No. For one simple reason: when I acquired something, I always very carefully and thoroughly checked the sources and provenance, besides, I had my own experience. I did not want to contact a specialist who could harbor some kind of obligations. I was interested in pure art.
Sarabyanov: Provenance is often invented - and it can sound quite believable too. In some cases, it is not a sufficient proof of authenticity of the picture.
Where and how was your experience formed?
Toporovsky: In the 1990s, when very few of us had the opportunity to go to Europe, I had already visited several exhibitions in European museums. Since 2006, I began to work with determination in the storerooms of European museums and archives. Visual experience can be developed by absolutely anyone, let’s recall for example, the classic example of [the largest collector of Russian avant-garde George] Kostaki. He built his collection, relying on his visual experience as well as the documents that were shown to him, and not on the opinion of museum staff.
Tell us, how did you manage to get permission to work in the Pompidou Center storage in Paris? A man from the street is unlikely to be able to get in there.
T: Actually it's very simple. You have to contact the management of the museum and write to them about your project. This isn’t hard. I worked in Pompidou, in the museum of Orsay, and in Ludwig. Getting into the storehouse of a European museum is not a problem at all.
Do you introduce yourself as a collector when you make a request?
T: I introduce myself as a person who’s working on a specific story, an independent specialist.
How did the work in the storages help you to scientifically authenticate your collection?
T: The scientific rationale consists of two parts: provenance and comparative analysis. Provenance are documents that tell you where the work came from or could have come from. Comparative analysis looks like this: you have a work that has an approximate name and an approximate date, and you compare it with the key works which are stored in museums.
In the storerooms, there are often works stored which have not been exhibited for many years, and some have never been exhibited at all. In the Pompidou Center store, 50,000 items are stored, the museum can't exhibit everything, but for those involved in a particular project, they may open up these storages. You can go in, take professional photographs, then later compare the manner of the artist, his style, a smear. Things that have never been exhibited are also extremely important to study in order to better understand the artist’s development over a period of time.
So you're saying that by studying these works, you were able to better study the canvases in your own collection?
T: Of course. This is how these things are studied. I do not really understand how you can, for example, speak out about photographic work, I consider this an outrageous and unscientific practice.
Why did you not think about getting an independent examination of the paintings from your collection?
T: Since the 1990s, there has been a constant struggle around the avant-garde, its goal is not to leave any work outside of the market, which in turn is controlled by certain people. Any independent market research is not accepted. Therefore, having documents about where the work came from as well as having comparative material, I see no reason to contact a specialist. Collections which in the future will become public, shouldn’t have to debut with: "Give me your conclusion or give me your opinion." I say: "Here is the provenance, here is the work, here is the comparative material. You can come see it if you are interested.
Do I understand correctly that you do not consider art experts specializing in the Russian avant-garde to be independent experts?
That is not the case! This is a completely wrong interpretation. There is a huge number of independent specialists who work on this topic. But they are engaged in their own business - for example, they describe the life of an artist through the use of archives, and explore their creativity. And the issue of expertise is a completely different story. I do not ask for expertise, but I am ready for any discussion. If someone is interested, I will gladly tell you about everything.
You’re saying that it is not in the best interest of art historians to introduce new avant-garde paintings to the market. But shouldn’t they be interested in new research materials?
T: So the way the system should run is: if there are previously unknown works, they need to be studied, not rejected. But what has been happening for many years now? In the world there are five major specialists in Kazimir Malevich: these are Troels Andersen from Denmark; Andrei Nakov from France, the Frenchman Jean-Claude Marcade, who wrote several very serious books; Alexander Shatskikh - she works with archives and writes interesting enough informative books and Irina Vakar from the Tretyakov Gallery. It’s not that they can not agree between themselves, they won’t even sit down at the same table. The main priority in their discussions is who will have the last word. Now, in this situation, try to ask one of them for their opinion. Whatever opinion they voice, the other four will say something completely different.
But if authenticity is proven ...
T: I have objective materials and objective documentation, but if I try, as you suggest to me, to accept the opinion of one of these five, I will take on myself the protection of this person, because everyone else will say that they lack competence in this issue.
If each of them is an authority, then the approval of at least one of them would only benefit you.
T: No, on the contrary! What you don’t understand is that any opinion of one of the five will automatically lead to negative opinions of the other four. Two years ago, Troels Andersen wrote a book in which he pointed out that there are 200 fake works in Nakov’s catalog raisonné. And you propose to me, in this atmosphere to rely on the opinion of one of the specialists?
Sarabyanov: Unfortunately, there is absolutely no 100% foolproof way of authenticating a work of art. There is always a difference in experts' opinions. Even the results of chemical research depend on the task originally assigned to the researcher. There is no single organization that would be the last authority in determining authenticity. Because of this, everything is happening - there is an opportunity for manipulations of various kinds. It is strange that Mr. Toporovsky did not address at least one of the five experts to be convinced of the authenticity of his work. It wasn’t necessary to disclose the results, but it would have been good to enlist the opinion of a serious expert in order to use it in the future, if necessary.
How did the works from your collection end up in the Gent Museum?
T: The Ghent Museum was updating its permanent exhibition. The collection, which is stored in its storerooms, is very national, mostly Flemish art, so the museum's management often attracts collectors for collaboration. By the centenary of the revolution , the museum wanted to present a number of works by Russian avant-garde artists, which would illustrate the development of Russian modernism; from neo-primitivism to constructivism. The selection of the works was made together with the director of the museum [Katrin de Zeger], she wanted to show the main artists of this period.
Why did she turn to you? Why not in the Tretyakov Gallery, for example?
T: The museums are addressed when someone wants to organize a classical exhibition, which lasts three to four months. Only funds or private collectors could agree to lend their collection for five years.
Did Catherine de Zeger herself come to you or did you turn to her?
T: We have a small country, we communicate with different museums, and, naturally, I met Catherine de Zeger.
And you told her about your collection?
Not only did I tell her about it, she looked at it too - she's a professional. Initially, she looked at a large number of works, documentation on them too - this question was discussed, as you can imagine, for more than one day.
Did you give her the provenance documents?
T: We have provided a dossier for each work which includes not only provenance, but also the historical existence of works. Many of the works exhibited in the museum were also exhibited in Russia before 1920.
And what do you mean by “historical existence”?
T: Historical existence is the mention of the work in publications and catalogs.
So, these works are mentioned somewhere?
T: Of course, of course! That's why I think that to argue that these works have unclear origin, is falsifying the facts. No one even bothered to ask or look at the dossiers for each work.
And where can these dossiers be studied?
T: If an expert comes to Ghent to see the exhibition, they can put in a request with the director of the museum or with myself, as the scientific director of the fund. Upon request, they will be shown all of the documents - this practice exists in all of the museums around the world. They for example, will be convinced that the work of Alexandra Exter "Florence" was painted in 1913 in Italy, and exhibited in 1915 at the exhibition "Tram B". And the "Nude" by Alexei Jawlensky was exhibited at the "Knave of Diamonds" exhibition in 1910.
And you can prove this with documents?
T: Of course. And the paintings by Olga Rozanova were exhibited at the posthumous exhibition in 1918. The fact that some have not seen the works, have not visited the museum, without requesting documents, express their pre-determined judgments, is what launches the negative processes around the avant-garde.
Sarabyanov: The catalogs of the exhibition "Tram B" and "The Knave of Diamonds", are blind. This means that in them only the author and the name of the picture are indicated, there is no mention of the size nor the medium in which the work was done, and there is no photo. It is impossible to assert that the work from the collection of Toporovsky was exhibited at one of these exhibitions. There are several variants of the painting "Florence" - they are kept in museums. To say that it was his paintings that was exhibited at the "Tram B" is ridiculous.
Why, didn’t you simply upload scans of documents confirming the authenticity of the works after hearing the first claims, after an open letter from the art critics?
T: I do not really understand what kind of claims have been made. The only complaint I see is a published letter from so-called experts. Among the signatories there are seven dealers, three of whom have absolutely nothing to do with Russian art, and three specialists in painting. In the letter I am accused of the fact that the works of Malevich and Kandinsky from my collection are not in the catalog-raisonné. Meanwhile, Alexandra Shatskikh during the years of her career confirmed the authenticity of quite a few works without referring to the catalog-raisonné. I wrote a letter to three signatories, asking them to explain the reasons for their doubts. I received the answer only from Mrs. [curator Natalia] Murray, she replied: "I signed the letter, and my lawyer will answer your questions". Do you think this is a scientific discussion?
As for the catalog-raisonné [Alexei] Jawlensky, it was published in 1991 - which means that the works, which by that time had not yet been in Europe, were not included in it. The catalog of Kandinsky's work compiled by [Vivian] Barnett was only of graphic work, the full catalog-raisonné was published in 1982, while Barnett continued to authenticate his work in both the 1990s and 2000s without referring to the old catalog. For art, which is not yet fully studied, to add to these catalogs is normal. In addition to this letter, I did not see any real scientific argument worthy of debate.
Then publish information about where, in which catalogs or museum lists, these works have been mentioned. Why don’t you want to respond to this open letter in this way?
T: My answer to this letter is, come and see for yourself. Do you suggest that I publish all the archives of the foundation? There’s 24 works hanging, for each of them we have a comparative analysis, and provenance. These works were exhibited, they were in catalogs, people who say they do not know these works, they just didn’t study the question throughly. I could present all the evidence in a large scientific publication, I can not publish dozens of documents in the newspaper.
This can be done on the Ghent museum website. It’s just that right now, your words are not backed up by any documents ...
T: No, wait, what do you mean - my words are not backed up? Completely backed up. Open the exhibition catalog for "Tram B" and you will find the work in it. It's not just my words, it's absolutely free information. Open the catalog of the posthumous exhibition of Rozanova, the catalogs of the "Jack of Diamonds", the exhibition "Target"  and you will confirm that they do contain these works. This is the absolute truth.
How can you be sure that the picture from your collection corresponds with the work indicated in the catalog? Can this be done by a person, not an art critic, without coming to Ghent or to you and your fund?
T: This is an international practice - when someone with the status of an expert has any doubts, they turn to the museum. The Museum shouldn’t have to publish something in its defense. I believe that specialists in Malevich and Kandinsky should have made a request and come to see the work. Let them form their opinions, then we can give our adequate scientific response. So far there is not a single scientific argument with which the museum or foundation could argue.
One of the arguments voiced by experts on Malevich: he never painted spinning wheels. But it is just such, a spinning wheel, painted by Malevich, was exhibited in Ghent.
T: There are many lacunae in the history of the avant-garde, and there isn’t always data about the existence of a particular work, of an object, especially when it comes to Malevich. Look at the publications, look at the catalogs. We have as many as two objects of Malevich, not just a spinning wheel, but a box too. If experts do not know about them, then they should come and see the provenance which I will provide, and the art itself. The authenticity of the artwork is determined by the analysis of what is painted. Seeing these two objects, the expert on Malevich should understand: whether this painting belongs to the hand of the great master or not.
You can also conduct chemical and technological expertise.
T: They are conducted in those cases when there are doubts. When a specialist examines the work, and it does not cause any doubts - neither image-wise nor concerning the materials used, the chemical examination is not carried out. If a specialist has unresolved doubts which relate to the painting itself, then they ask for a technological examination which shows the state of the pigments and the binder. Based on these data, a conclusion is drawn regarding the authenticity of the work. This examination is subsidiary.
Do you have any doubts?
T: I don’t have any.
The Flemish Minister of Culture has offered you an examination, have you agreed?
T: The statement of the Flemish Minister of Culture clearly states that there are no real grounds for doubt, but in view of the current situation, he proposed to conduct a chemical examination, and I agreed.
Is the date already scheduled?
T: Look, I do not work in the minister's office, so I do not know. He just made this statement. You're asking me a very strange question.
I just want to understand, who should the initiative come from.
T: The Minister made a decision, I gave him my consent. Now, I, as the director of the fund and the owner, completely entrust them with this issue. For the sake of objectivity, I can not interfere with this process.
* * *
You claim that part of your collection once belonged to your spouse's family, in particular to her father, whose grandfather was a relative of the artist and sculptor Anton Pevzner and his brother, the architect and artist Naum Gabo. According to you, in the 1920s they left Russia and left part of their collection in Moscow. However art historians say that Pevzners took everything with them.
T: Tell me, please, these art historians - what exactly do they base these statements on? Can they show at least one document confirming their words? They can’t.
And can you?
T: There's a family here. By the way, my wife's father is still alive. When the artists left in the 1920s, they left a lot here [in Russia]. This is a universally recognized fact. Lunacharsky signed their permission to leave, realizing that they will never return. Kandinsky was given 48 hours to leave. With Chagall there was an arrangement, he was to allegedly organize an exhibition in Kaunas, and Lunacharsky gave him the opportunity to take some work out of the county, but a lot remained. When Pevzner left, in the apartment where my wife's relatives lived, these things remained.
You say ”what art historians say is not supported by documents” yet what you say, is?
T: Like any family tradition, it is supported by family testimonies and the existence of the items.
Does your wife's father confirm this?
T: It's a family story that has always existed in the family. He, as a person who had a relationship with art, still maintains it today.
Tell us exactly what he says.
T: You should not forget that when Pevzner left, it was 1923. Then there was no private property. These works were left in the communal flat where my wife's great-grandfather lived. Here we need to clarify that before the departure, the brothers lived separately and to put it mildly, they did not get along well. And now the journalists are contacting the daughter of Naum Gabo, born after the World War II in America, and asking her if she knows Olga Toporovskaya. Nina Williams, as well as Kostaki's daughter [Aliki], may not know about the existence of Olga Toporovskaya. But this does not prove in any way that the father of my wife did not trade with Kostaki for the drawings kept by Pevzners.
The daughter of the collector George Kostaki didn’t remember the name of your wife either, although your father-in-law, according to you, was a close friend of her father.
T: Do you think it's normal to ask the daughter who lives in Greece, the question of what kind of people her father might have encountered in Moscow? It's absurd.
She lived in Moscow during those years.
T: So what? What, did she know all the collectors who spoke with Kostaki? Did she go to these meetings with him? This, to say the least, is ridiculous.
Sarabyanov: If this person really communicated with Kostaki, his daughter could not forget him - she helped her father and was aware of all his affairs. This I know for sure, I was familiar with Kostaki himself, as well as with her.
Do I understand correctly that most of your collection was bought from the museums of the former Soviet republics after the collapse of the USSR?
T: Not only from museums, but also private collections.
And which museums were the ones selling the Russian avant-garde after the collapse of the USSR?
T: I can only give one example - that is the sale of the Kharkov museum's storehouses in 1991-1992.
What documents confirm this?
T: Of course, there are documents, there are catalogs where this is published, they contain museum inventory numbers. Natalia Goncharova's work "Four Evangelists" is in the catalog of the Kharkov Museum for 1992. That’s when they started selling this part of Russian art and transferring it into private hands.
Are there any traces of these sales?
T: These two Kharkov catalogs actually fully reflect everything. They were selling, by the way, not only avant-garde painting, but neoclassical too.
Sarabyanov: I do not know about these sales.
Valentina Myzgina (art critic, director of the Kharkov Art Museum since 1991): I have been working in the Kharkov Museum since 1970 and have never heard of any sales: neither in 1991, nor in 1992, nor in 1993 , nor later. The booklet to which [Toporovsky] refers to prove the provenance of Goncharova and Rozanova, was not published in 1992, but in 1998 - it is called "The image is beautiful," and contains quite different work. I was sent scans of his booklet: if ours has a picture by [Ivan] Kramskoy on the cover, his has one by an artist unknown to me. In his catalog paintings are listed in the "graphics" section with museum inventory numbers with the GR encryption - which is used for graphic works. Also under the works it is indicated that they are in a private collection, and the works, which we get by agreement with the collectors, are not assigned inventory numbers. I do not know whether he incompletely scanned the booklet or stuck fake pages in it, but it seems to me that this is total bogus.
In addition to the Kharkov Museum, where else did you buy the Russian avant-garde?
T: In this case it was a direct sale from the museum itself, but there were also numerous storages that were not connected to a particular museum. In the 1920s, Lunacharsky organized a whole network of new museums throughout the Soviet Union. This was part of the educational mission of the People's Commissariat of Education. In the 1930s, Stalin ordered all this to be destroyed and shut down. There were cases when the work was physically destroyed, in other cases it was placed into special storage facilities, they no longer had anything to do with the Ministry of Culture, but belonged to those structures that had liquidated them. In the storerooms of these structures all this time the canvases remained stored away.
I can assume that some sort of list of confiscated goods must have been kept even in the structures of the KGB.
T: The lists of confiscated and seized goods, of course, existed. But they existed on a local level. That is, this is not the kind of list that you can find in the central archives, it was the inventory of works in the storages.
How do you establish provenance in this case?
T: In this case, provenance is traced through the descriptions of works, their historical existence is studied, catalogs are analyzed. Not all works have been published, but some can be encountered. This is very hard and lengthy work.
Sarabyanov: This is a legend. There were no such storages or storage facilities. Those things that once came to the KGB, were never found. There are several cases when artists were arrested and their paintings were confiscated, but they were never found. In principle, the avant-garde in those years was treated with disdain, and even more so by the government. Who there could understand it?
You said that you bought paintings from private collections. Who owned them?
T: Many actors owned canvases. Everyone knows the story of how Kostaki bought two Exter canvases from Alice Koenen, the widow of [director Alexander] Tairov. Very few people know, but the famous tenor [Leonid] Sobinov had a huge collection of classical art, even several works by Kandinsky on glass. I bought works from families that were related to the art world. Another interesting collection by the way, is Solomon Schuster’s in St. Petersburg.
You also mentioned the collection of the director of the Hermitage in 1934-1951 Joseph Orbeli, who allegedly took work with him from Leningrad. Meanwhile, many art historians say that Orbeli did not have his own collection, and he was not interested in the avant-garde.
T: Art historians can say anything, but there are solid facts. There is a man from the family of Orbeli, who is called Kamo Manukyan. In 1993, he came to Moscow and showed the works from this collection, one work - "Ace of Treasures" by Ivan Puni, was bought by the Tretyakov Gallery. Then this provenance did not cause any doubt, the second work was bought by [chairman of the board of directors of "Alfa Group" Peter] Aven, the third was bought by me.
Sarabyanov: Orbeli's relatives do not confirm this provenance. They have not heard about any collection of Orbeli's avant-garde. I once heard of a man named Kamo Manukyan, but I do not know anything about him. I have not heard that he brought paintings to Moscow.
Irina Vakar (expert on the Russian avant-garde of the Tretyakov Gallery): We do have such a picture. It was purchased at the auction "Alfa-Art" in about 1993-1994. I remember the situation with this picture very well. It was purchased very quickly, the State Treasury committee liked it very much, but I and the other employees had not seen it at that time. And when they did see it, they were very disappointed, because it seemed very dubious to us. Unfortunately, at that time the gallery was not properly technologically equipped, there were no similar Puni in the collection, and there was nothing to compare it to. This issue was settled by the leadership and the senior colleagues who did not engage with the avant-garde, and, in general, everyone was much more trustful back in those days. I remember that we decided (with whom, I do not remember), not to enter it into the academic catalog of the State Tretyakov Gallery (I am the scientific editor of these volumes). Puni is my author in the catalog, and all his works are described by me, except this one. At present, the painting is undergoing a restoration, during which it may become clear what it is exactly.
Peter Aven: I have never bought anything from any Manukyan or any people connected with Toporovsky. (To comment on the works exhibited in Ghent and the activities of Toporovsky in general, Aven categorically refused.)
So, how many units are in your collection?
T: A lot.
A few hundred or tens?
T: If you include graphics and drawings, then a few hundred.
Is it fair to assume that you bought your collection for a relatively low price?
T: Of course, at that time it was not as expensive as today, but still they were serious sums, if we compare them to salaries of the early 1990s. Their cost is in no way comparable to today's auction prices.
Did you buy everything alone, or did you have any partners at that time?
T: No, alone.
Did you, as I understand it, have an idea to put these canvases on display in Russia? Why did you abandon it?
T: It's hard for me to talk about reasons. I wanted these works to be in state hands, so that the collection would no longer remain private. In one way or another, I will return it to the museum - if not on the territory of Russia, then in Belgium. The collection will remain integral and open for study, discussion and debate. I collected the art so it could survive, because I watched it being destroyed: first it was destroyed by Stalin, then by the dealers who organized the market in this way.
You offered to transfer these works to Russian museums?
T: No, I did not offer it to the museums. I can’t give you detailed information on this subject. I will only say that such issues are decided not by the museum, but by the state. Therefore, it was not discussed at the level of a particular museum.
At the level of the Ministry of Culture, then?
T: No, even higher.
And they told you, from higher up, that they were not interested?
T: I did not see any interest, I was told that right now this project is not a priority - there are many other important things.
I would like to make an analogy to the Kostaki collection. Do you remember how he suffered while looking for a place for his magnificent collection. He also wanted to give work to the Russian Museum, but he was refused. And only when the question of departure arose, he barely agreed with the Tretyakov Gallery, that they would take the best works.
* * *
Igor, how did you even develop an interest in modernist painting? Is it family?
T: No, I am from a very simple family, and this is all because to the Moscow State University. I went there in 1983, after graduation I worked in the Academy of Sciences. Family plays no role.
After studying at the Faculty of History, you settled in the newly formed Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
T: Yes. It was formed in 1988 by the decision of Mikhail Gorbachev, then there was only ten of us working there . Gorbachev decided to create an institution that was supposed to develop dossiers on various European issues. At that time they became very important - before that the European politics were not a priority. I worked in the French direction.
As part of this small group, did you prepare dossiers for Gorbachev before his foreign trips?
T: Not just before the trips. A massive amount of dossiers were developed, files were developed on the unification of Germany, on his visits, and on the new European architecture of security, on economic cooperation too. Our specialized center communicated directly with the international department of the Central Committee, and Gorbachev was eventually forwarded these documents.
In 1992 you defended your thesis? Were you still living in Moscow?
T: Since 1990, I have already worked extensively in the West: in Paris and Brussels. But I defended my thesis at the Academy of Sciences.
Who did you work as in Europe?
T: At the Institute of Europe, we were graduates, and in order to give us additional experience, the institute sent us to various internships. I had an internship in Paris. My first international conference with young specialists from NATO countries was held in 1990. Since 1990 I have been studying at the Paris House of Human Sciences, a foundation that works with the Ministry of Higher Education and Science in France to develop international scientific collaboration. When the first direct contacts with NATO were established, I was personally invited there for an internship. I have even preserved correspondence with the late General Secretary [NATO in 1988-1994] Manfred Werner. Then I trained in the European Commission, and since 1992 I became an independent specialist.
Specialist in what field?
T: International relations.
With a company or a department?
T: No, on my own. I worked with Western structures, with the Trilateral Commission, where I was an adviser to the European chairman. The idea was to find common ground with Russia, to present the West with an objective view of Russia and find ways of collaboration. Having contacts with structures in the West, I organized trips of our parliamentarians to Brussels, to NATO, to the European Parliament, I also explained to these European structures that they need to develop relations with Russia. From 1991 to 1996, almost all parliamentary trips to Europe were organized by me.
With the arrival of Vladimir Putin, was your activity ceased?
T: Of course. Such cooperation was necessary only at the very beginning, when NATO was a terrible enemy, and crossing the threshold of this organization seemed like some kind of magic. Then the situation normalized, everything ran smoothly, Yeltsin's foreign policy in terms of reproaching Europe and the US was extremely positive. Under Putin, however, the state structures have already grown strong enough to decide and discuss these issues themselves, even if it’s in an unofficial way.
Why did you leave Russia in 2006?
T: I travel around Europe very often, but I can’t live in two countries, I had to make a decision. We decided to leave, including but not limited to so that our children would receive a European education.
Have you had any political motives?
Did you start transporting your collection to Brussels beforehand?
T: It all, of course, was in advance. When we left, we just left the family.
How did you manage to transport such a large number of works?
T: In our Belgian legislation, the import of cultural property is clearly allowed, therefore the fact that these works are here, the Belgian state is aware of and does not have a problem with it.
And how was the export carried out?
T: First, the export was not conducted on the territory of the Russian Federation.
And on what territory was it conducted?
T: On the territory of the former Soviet republics.
But there's customs there too.
T: You should ask them. I think they might have some kind of documents.
Did you export the paintings back in the 1990s?
T: Naturally, all of this was in the 1990's. On the territory of Belgium, everything is absolutely legal.
And the private collections, which you bought the work from, were also not stored in Moscow?
T: I bought a lot of the works from private collections in Europe - it was the decision of the owners, came down to how they exported the work - not my business.
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Have you decided to study the Russian avant-garde closely after moving to Belgium?
T: I have always dealt with art, but when I moved, I had the opportunity to concentrate on it completely. But I used to collect archives, documents, I have a huge library of books on Russian artists. Now I dedicate all my time to art, whereas before it was 30-40%.
The castle in which the future museum will be housed, is in your possession or do you have some agreement with the municipality?
T: It’s in my possession. We plan to open the museum in 2020, but much depends on the restoration work, this place is a cultural heritage site, so we need to get a lot of permits. My dream is that this collection will finally become public, that is, forever leave private hands.
Why is isolating yourself from the world and the market of collectors, auctions and art dealers so fundamental for you?
T: I’m talking about this, because I hear accusations in my direction: supposedly I’m exhibiting the work, so I can then sell it for a lot of money. Therefore, I initially stressed that my project has absolutely nothing to do with the market, the work will never appear there, I'm not going to earn money from it. I want to preserve this part of Russian art, which I consider to be very important, and I’m doing my best to do so.
You said that you want the collection to become public. It means that you will transfer the rights to it to the Belgian state?
T: Yes. It’s a little complex from the technical point of view, but the fundamental decision has been made.
Why don’t you want to keep it for your family?
T: I do not want to leave this heavy burden to the children, everyone should do their own thing. This is my project, I'm interested. It’s not a fact that it will be interesting to them. Also, I do not want the collection to be fragmented, it was collected very carefully, it is integral that it remains whole and the only way to guarantee that is to transfer it into state hands.
Sarabyanov: It seems to me that the scandalous appearance of these works is not accidental. Over the past year, prices for works by Russian avant-garde artists have begun to grow again, there haven’t been any scandals in a long time. All this may have been done in order to bring down the market and return it to the old positions. So that the art world will contribute to hear whispers that the market of the Russian avant-garde can not be trusted, because it harbors fakes, which are even exhibited in museums.”