So Far No Fake…

Russian Avant-Garde art is besieged with myth and misunderstanding, misinterpretation and accusation. It was first the victim of Stalinist hard-liners in the 1920s because it was “abstract”, thus “worthless”. Not to represent happy peasants was considered a betrayal of the new Soviet state. Today it is the victim of the opposite camp, investors for whom it is “worthful” as a rare, exclusive – and expensive – object. But too many are too much, so they are inconvenient, according to some in the art market. Denounced once more, the artists and their works are again victims of purges.

But the art historians are delighted. For those who are unbiased and uncompromised, theirs is the pursuit of unprecedented creative invention.

Thus has occurred the art market’s war on the art historians, with threats to keep them quiet, together with ignominious attacks of “fake”.

Let us look at what it means to cry “fake” – suitably here called crying “wolf”…


A certain individual in London who sells minor Russian works of art has been hired by a tycoon who rewards him every time he declares works to be “fake”. Yet this individual has nothing to recommend him by way of qualifications, expertise, or information about the works, while nevertheless posing as an authority by asserting norms for authenticating works of art.

Two of these norms are –

1. Exhibition history of a work


2. Provenance.

His assertion:

without exhibition history a work cannot be considered authentic,


without a full provenance a work cannot be considered authentic.

Has anyone noticed his blatant ignorance of history?

Has anyone noticed his contradiction?

THE FALLACY – If a work has one but not the other, is it therefore a fake? If it has neither, is it a fake?

Exhibition history and provenance are certainly NOT proof of authenticity, being no more than complementary documents. Would one say that an orphaned child is not genuine if his parents are unknown?

A work of art can be shown to be genuine only by its own nature, not by the nature of extraneous documents.

Ever heard of Stalin?

Being a victim of hard-liners from the mid-1920s, the Russian Avant-Garde was a victim of political policy in the Soviet Union from that time.

How well known is it that the Director of the Kiev Art Gallery, Fedor Kumpan, was given a long prison sentence for having put on an exhibition of work by Kazimir Malevich in 1930, the painter accused of being “a bourgeois artist [whose] entire work needs art not for serving society but only for the sake of form”. (In Kazimir Malevich, Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin, 2003)

How well known is it that Stalin’s 1932 decree, On the Reconstruction of Literary and Artistic Organisations, made art an instrument of state propaganda. Therewith, the “abstract” art of Russian Avant-Garde artists became formally “illegal”. The 1930s in Russia are notorious for deportations and killings, artists, like intellectuals, losing their lives for their art and ideas.

There was no art market in Russia because there was no private enterprise, thus there was no market for the Russian Avant-Garde from the mid-1920s. There were no exhibitions, and certainly no buyers or sellers. There was no exhibition history of works for over 60 years, and whoever owned works either hid them or denied ever having had them. Russian Avant-Garde art was dangerous because it was not ideological.

Russian Avant-Garde art must always be seen in the context of Soviet political policies. It regained its “legality” only with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Therefore, no exhibition history because there were no exhibitions of illegal art. Therefore, no provenance because it was too dangerous to admit to owning works.

Then was the grand occasion of the opening of museum reserves and with THE GREAT UTOPIA in 1992, the first exhibitions of Russian Avant-Garde art since the early 1920s. Hundreds of works that had been hidden were seen to great acclaim in Russia, Germany, Holland, and New York.

A few smaller exhibitions in provincial museums and in the West followed in order to show museum collections that had been created around 1920 by the Russian Avant-Garde artists who had initiated the Museum of Artistic Culture – Kandinsky, Rodchenko, Malevich, Tatlin, Popova, Rozanova, Kliun, and many others.

But there were other works that had remained in storages in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and across Russia. They had been saved by the artists, the Depository of Contemporary Art being the initiative around 1920 of Nikolai Vinogradov, friend of Goncharova and Larionov. It was under his care and keys until his death at the age of 90 (in the 1980s) and was the important secret source of Russian Avant-Garde works bought by George Costakis, Jacob Rubenstein, Valeri Dudakov, Chudnovski, and other clandestine collectors from the 1960s. To it must be added “all the treasures in those little second- hand shops in the Arbat quarter”, Dudakov recalls. All this is well documented in the interview with Valeri Dudakov on his collection in Christina Burrus, Art Collectors of Russia – The Private Treasures Revealed (London: Tauris Parke Books, 1994); reprinted in Journal of InCoRM, 2011. Provenance? From a junk shop?

Some of these works from the Depository were sold at Sotheby’s in London in the 1970s and 1980s, the provenance being ignored first because it was dangerous for the collectors to give their names to an “illegal” art, and secondly because the Depository of Contemporary Art was unknown to historians at the time.

Reliable authentication

There was great excitement around the Russian Avant-Garde sales in London during these years and no one seems to have accused these works of being fakes.

More recently, loose tongues flap in the wind – “there are so many Russian avant-garde fakes”. But these tongues don’t remember who told them that, when it was, or about which works. Some? all? a couple? They can’t recall…

To say a work of art is authentic it must be proved. To say a work of art is fake it must be proved.

The only way to authenticate a work of art is by research – into the materials of which it is made and into the style in which it was created in an historical context.

Research into the materials is carried out by the scientist seeking to identify the pigments used, and to discover if they are fully and evenly bonded with the binders, such as oil. If they are, called polymerised, then the work is between 60 and 80 years old from the time of the analysis. If researched in 2000, the work would precede 1940 or even 1920. The conclusion: the work is OLD.

If they are not, then the conclusion: the work is NEW.

Research into the style is carried out by the art historian seeking to understand the laws of colour, the laws of structure, paint application and all the aspects governing the creative process. Thus is an artist identified, and a work attributed, or not.

All things in the world are known by the integration of their materials and their style, by what makes them look as they do – from the animal to the crystal to the stars in the sky. That is why only the combined work of the scientist and the art historian are able to authenticate a work of art. All else is ancillary, if not simply pure speculation.

Together, knowledgeable and reputable scientists and art historians alone are able to discover if a work is authentic or not. No myth-making, no deception, no misconception. No fallacious norms. No bias, no pay check for crying “fake”. So far no fake in the integrity of this teamwork.

25 November 2015

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    Researchers Slandered for Telling the Truth

    With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, all that had been illegal under the regime suddenly became legal. Most significantly, the first effects were felt in economics. The Russia that had belonged to the State was now for sale, with private enterprise and private ownership taking over the country.

    This included the sale of abstract works of art that had been confined to large storages since around 1930. In the 1990s they were sold to the highest bidders, a few of whom were in the West. Throughout the 1990s Russian Avant-Garde works began to appear on the market in the West, alarming those in Russia who had not been the highest bidders or, perhaps, who saw their intention to inflate the value of their collections begin to diminish as more and more works appeared on the art market. They decided to call a halt to this and began to shout “fake” in the Russian and Western press. We know who they are because they are the ones who shout.

    Among the most notorious examples of contrived reporting was a long article published in the New York magazine, ARTnews, “Faking the Russian Avant-Garde” of 1 July 2009. By stating that works from the storages, however, were not included because it would have been “Illegal” to sell them, the authors inadvertently admitted to their authenticity. But it did set the stage for the formal beginning of what has been a well-organised campaign in the press that took an even more brazen turn with the April 2011 special press conference on Moscow television in which 2 Western publications on the art of Natalia Goncharova were disgracefully accused of containing “fakes”. This was not on the basis of knowledge about the works but on the basis of a bald strategy to kill the authority of the Western authors. It was a well-designed two-prong attack.

    Since then, various appearances of what could be called the “fake brigade” have taken place in so-called “lectures” and in their access to both dedicated press such as Art and certain art publications in the West. They are not speaking out of information or knowledge but are simply taking orders from those above them.

    This is a war of the art market in which scientists and art historians are being accused of being complicit in a huge scam to deceive ignorant or naive buyers, a tactic that reveals the game of the accusers. In other words, certain individuals in the art market are attacking and attempting to discredit research and scholarship because they are spoiling their game.

    The works that are spoiling their game are precisely the genuine works from the former storages. And the scientists and art historians who are spoiling their game are those who have researched them and know they are not fakes. They may even have published on this. The aim is to silence them by slandering them.

    It is in this context that the not un-related events in Germany occurred when over 1,500 works were seized by police who declared them to be “fakes”, according to their Press Release of 13 June 2013. Their actions were apparently based on a considerable amount of phone tapping and email hacking from which they built their case, but they had had no access to the works they confiscated from their owners nor any documents about them. The previous skirmishes had turned into all-out war.

    Of the works confiscated, most of the Russian Avant-Garde works had been bought in Russia from the storages. Of most of those examined by several highly reputable scientists, they are at least 60 years old, a fact that can be determined by testing for polymerisation, the bonding of binding materials. This being the case, these works are NOT modern reproductions, fashionably called “fakes” by the perpetrators, but, depending on the date of the scientific report, would date from between 1940 and 1950.

    A political factor intervenes here, however, because, being abstract, these works had been deposited in storages in Russia under the label of “anti-Bolshevik” which is what made them officially illegal. In addition to this, the political and economic situation in Russia during those years would have prevented every artist from producing works that would have sent them to the gulag. The dating of these works, then, is pushed back prior to 1930.

    This is the real situation of most of these works.

    That modern reproductions may have been introduced is something that can easily be detected by reputable and experienced scientists. A case in point is a “Kandinsky” that I saw where the signature disappeared under ultraviolet light, a sign that it was not bonded with the pigments underneath so was a modern addition. When further examined it was found that the painting was recently done – perhaps to be colour coordinated in someone’s living room? A fake? A copy? of which there are thousands – of Picasso, Matisse, and on and on.

    To detect a fake by appropriate scientific means is not difficult. So let the press hesitate before repeating the propaganda of the fake brigade because in so doing they are slandering the innocent and protecting the perpetrators of the deceit, those Guy Fawkes of law and order in the art world. The fake brigade is like the fire brigade without a fire.

    Perhaps some enterprising investigative journalist or ethical newspaper will undertake to expose this enormous scam of price manipulation in the art market at the expense of the freedom of science and scholarly research.

    5 November 2014