By John Helmer, Moscow
On March 1, the Brussels art dealer Bru Sale has announced it will auction 184 lots in a collection the dealer in charge, Didier Sacareau, is calling Russian art paintings and drawings. Works by some of the best-known artists among the Russian avant-garde movements of the early twentieth century are on sale, and the prices are a steal. The reason for that, according to art authentication experts in London, Moscow and Kiev, is because they are.
Aristakh Lentulov worked in Moscow from 1909, where he was one of the founders of the now famous Knave of Diamonds (Бубновый валет) group; he died in 1945. His untitled and undated work is Lot 103 (pictured below, left), and is reported by Bru Sale as “tempera on cardboard signed lower right 40 x 34 cm”. The auctioneer is estimating the work will fetch between €350 – €600, and an opening bid has been registered at €300. According to a London art dealer, “This is a joke. If genuine, this work has to be €400,000.”
Lot 130 (above, right) is a work by Alexander Rodchenko (1891-1956), described as “mixed technic on paper signed lower right many tears (see photos) on the sides 36,5 x 27,5 cm”. Rodchenko’s work is currently included in the Russian Revolution show at the Royal Academy of Art in London, running between February 11 and April 17.
Last December Sotheby’s reported a record-price sale of a work by Rodchenko. This was his “Construction No.95” of 1919, which was knocked down for £3,646,250; for details, read this. If Bru Sale’s offer of its Rodchenko work were genuine, the London source believes its market value at present would be at least €500,000.
In the small print of vendor terms, Bru Sale publishes this disclaimer: “The organizer makes no warranty as to the accuracy of a statement of the author, the origin, date, age, attribution, provenance, weight and size or the physical condition of the lot”.
Asked if this is common practice, a London dealer in Russian paintings says: “I don’t know of any dealer who takes this approach.” Another dealer specializing in Russian art says he doesn’t comment on competitors in the market, but adds he has not heard of Bru Sale. A Moscow expert confirms the name of the Brussels dealer is unknown in the market of Russian art.
The auction on Wednesday lists this work by the Ukrainian avant-garde artist, Alexander Bogomazov (below, left). The Bru Sale catalogue describes it as “pencil on paper signed and dated lower left 24×16 cm”. It has estimated the auction price between €300 to €400. Born in 1880 at Yampol, in eastern Ukraine, Bogomazov studied in Kiev; supported the Bolshevik revolution of 1917; worked, then died in Kiev in 1930; he was just 50. His wife Wanda Monastirskaya-Bogomazova, who preserved his paintings through the German invasion, died in 1984. Out of the destruction of the war, concealment for safekeeping, and looting by the Germans have come many genuine works of art, as well as many alibis for fakes.
Falshak, as the faking of art works is known in Russian, is a thriving business when the genuine goods are low in supply, and high in demand. Factories turning out Russian falshak have been found in Israel, Russia, western Europe, and, in a fictional account by the American writer Tom Wolfe, in Florida. Factories in New York and Washington turn out fake news. The rate of return on falshak can be higher than on genuine art, and it is the same for fake news compared to true, because Gresham’s Law applies to both – the supply of bad commodities for sale drives out the supply of good. For details of the thriving business of Russian falshak, read this archive.
This business requires three people: the forger to produce the counterfeit; the dealer to market it or sale and collect the proceeds; and the expert to sign an authentication certificate verifying what he or she knows to be false. There is an ample supply of the first and second; the supply of the third runs short. Bru Sale has cut him out of the transaction chain altogether.
James Butterwick, a London specialist on Russian and Ukrainian art, is the curator of the first major retrospective exhibition of Bogomazov works at the National Museum of Art in Kiev, opening on September 28. There were smaller exhibitions in Kiev in 1966 and 1991, and at the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg in 2007. The Butterwick show will be the largest Bogomazov exhibition ever with over 300 paintings and drawings loaned by European, American, Ukrainian and Russian private collectors and institutions. They lend with the understanding that the bigger the show, the higher the market demand for Bogomazov will be afterwards, and the better off their investment will become. Counterfeit Bogomazov is the corollary. Driving it off the market is essential to allowing the Ukrainian Picasso, as Bogomazov came to be called in Soviet days, to follow his namesake’s price trajectory.
Bru Sale has offered a Bogomazov drawing as Lot 109 (pictured below left) at this week’s sale. It is described as “pencil on paper signed and dated lower left 24×16 cm.” The date appears to be 1913. Butterwick, whose Kiev show will include several Bogomazov drawings (below, right), asked Sacareau at Bru Sale where his Bogomazov drawing had come from, and how he had verified it as genuine.
Left, source: http://www.invaluable.co.uk/
According to Sacareau, he had obtained the sale item from a “private russian collection” whose name he would not disclose. When challenged to explain how his assessment of authenticity sat with the view of the artist’s granddaughter and Ukrainian experts that it may be counterfeit, Sacareau replied: “at this price it’s to you to take the risk and read our conditions of sale we give no guarantee. If you want it to be different it would be preferable for you to buy at Chrisite’s or Sotheby’s.”
Sacareau was referrig to the June 1, 2015, sale by Christie’s in London of a Bogomazov painting, “Cubo-futurist composition with toys”. It was auctioned for £194,500 ($297,390). The auction house reported provenance as “Wanda Bogomazova, the artist’s widow. Acquired from the above by Modernism Gallery, San Francisco (label on the frame). Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1988.”
On November 15, 2015, Christie’s also auctioned a portrait of the artists’s wife, which fetched £182,500 ($275,575). According to the auctioneer, the painting had come on to the market originally from the “family of the artist. Acquired by the present owner in New York in 2007.”
The last Sotheby’s sale of a Bogomazov, “Landscape with Trees” (1911) (below, left), went for £85,250 in May of 2012; the provenance reported by the seller was Yaroslava Ivanitskaya, Bogomazov’s daughter.
In Moscow Denis Lukashin, an expert on the Russian art market at Art Consulting, comments: “I haven’t heard about forgeries of Bogomazov recently. This painter is one of the top-list of the Russian and Ukrainian avant-garde. His works are expensive and sell well. But for the past four years his works could hardly be encountered at auctions or on the market at all.”
Eduard Dymshyts, a professor of art history in Kiev, was the curator of the 1991 exhibition of Bogomazov at the State Museum of Ukrainian Fine Art. Of the work in the Bru Sale catalogue he said this week: “I can’t say with 100% certainty, because I didn’t hold this work in my own hands, but according to my knowledge of Bogomazov’s works I can say it is a crude forgery. There are a lot of characteristics which are not usual for Bogomazov works. This work isn’t mentioned in archive documents nor is there any sketch at all.”
Bru Sale’s blindfold catalogue is also offering an oil painting (below) by the Russian avant-gardist Ilya Chashnik (1902-1929). This carries the description: “Oil on canvas 1920 signed and dated 20 on reverse 44 x 70 cm”. The asking price, according to the catalogue, is between €1,400 and €1,500, and already, according to Bru Sale, there is a bidder at €1,300.
Because Chashnik died young, and the Germans did so much damage to Leningrad, the supply of his genuine works has been small. But as demand rises, pushing up price, the supply of fake Chashniks rises to meet the demand. The record made by the Tajan gallery of Paris in its attempt to sell a work the experts called counterfeit can be read here; the tale of the cover-up followed here.
Last December a certified Chashnik, “The Seventh Dimension, Suprematist Relief”, had been forecast by Sotheby’s ahead of its auction to realize between £100,000 and £150,000; it fetched £2,408,750.
Alongside the Brussels gallery’s inventory, there is something else for sale in the small print of the Bru Sale Russian auction announcement:
Look carefully, and under the dateline you will see a white-coloured, almost invisible internet link. Click on that, and you will see a website advertising “SuperGeneric Viagra”.
This site provides expert advice on how to detect counterfeit Viagra from the genuine article. “You need to be very careful,” the site warns, “when you purchase drugs like Viagra online. This is because there are a lot of counterfeit online drugstores in existence that happen to furnish spurious meds to customers. In this blog, you can get to know the difference between counterfeit and real Viagra before ordering it online. One of the important things you need to take note of while getting Viagra online is to check if they have been approved by the food and drugs administration. Viagra pills have to go through strict verification processes before they are being sold online.”
At his Brussels office on Rue Ravenstein , Sacareau (right) was asked to clarify how he has authenticated art works he is selling, and explain why his asking prices for the Russian works on offer this week are so much lower than the market for genuine works. He was also asked to say why Bru Sale is advertising Viagra. Are Sacareau and Bru Sale less interested in authenticating what hangs on the walls of their auction house than what hangs in their pants?
At press time Sacareau has not replied.