By John Helmer, Moscow
Since the 14th century it’s been said that if you take a pitcher to the well too often, it will eventually come back broken. When it comes to the market in Russian avant-garde art, taking the same picture to the well twice may be once too often.
In the case of the Paris art auction house Tajan, a second attempt to offer for sale a work by the Russian avant-garde painter Ilya Chashnik ended this week when the work was withdrawn from the catalogue, just ahead of the auction scheduled for the evening of June 28. The work, entitled “Suprematist Cross” (lead image, centre), was listed in the Tajan catalogue as Lot Number 57.
According to Anne Perret (pictured below, left), director of Tajan’s modern art department, and Caroline D’Amat (right), senior expert in the department, the work had been authenticated by an expert on Russian art in Paris, Alexander Arzamastsev (Арзамасцев).
D’Amat and Perret provided this certificate from Arzamastsev . Distributed to interested bidders this month, Arzamastsev has claimed the Chashnik work had come from the “Radack Collection”. Radack, Arzamastsev has reported, was originally from a Hungarian family, which moved to Germany; made money; and “began collecting paintings, mostly modernist and avant garde. During World War II the family moved to Switzerland but left behind them the greater part of the collection in their lawyer’s basement. In 1964 after Anselm von Radack’s death the collection passed into the hands of his grandson Sven Vicktor von Radack.”
Skepticism about the Suprematist Cross was aroused in the market this month because Tajan had offered it for sale once before, on March 8, 2016. Another work by Chashnik, a drawing, was also offered for sale by Tajan at the time. When its provenance was challenged, along with the authenticity of the Suprematist Cross, both works were removed from the catalogue and from the sale. Read the story in full here .
A detailed investigation followed by Simon Hewitt, international editor at Russian Art+Culture. His examination of the Suprematist Cross and other suspected Russian art works can be read by clicking to open .
This month, when collectors and dealers in France and the UK noticed the Suprematist Cross was reappearing for auction, Tajan was asked to confirm whether it was the same work. D’Amat replied by email on June 23: “Yes, it is the same painting. For more information on the collection Radack, please consult the explanation by the expert, enclosed.” The expert was Arzamastsev, and the “explanation” this one .
D’Amat also included in her email this confirmation from the Tajan catalogue:
When Perret was asked to clarify and confirm details in the Arzamastsev certificate, she replied that Lot 57 was still for sale as of June 26. She added that asking questions about its authenticity, and about the genuineness of the Radack provenance were “tentatives d’intimidation concernant les œuvres d’art Russe figurant dans notre catalogue de vente du 28 juin prochain ( Lot 57). Vous avez a plusieurs reprises essayé de discriminer l’expertise de Monsieur Arzamatsev lors de nos ventes antérieures.”
Perret also threatened to sue. “Nous ne pouvons accepter de votre part que vous continuiez à diffuser des informations mensongères et qui n’engagent que vous sur le compte de l’étude Tajan en portant préjudice et sa réputation et ce sans aucun fondement.”
Arzamastsev was asked to clarify his claim that “some paintings from this [Radack] collection are now  exhibiting in the Tissen Museum in Madrid [Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum], in the State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow.” The Thyssen museum website reports  that it holds one Chashnik work, entitled “Suprematist Composition” (right) and traceable, so the museum claims, from one of the artist’s exhibitions in St. Petersburg in 1923. The Museum reports no trace of the Radack Collection.
Tatyana Potapova, who is in charge of inventories, archives and storage at the Pushkin State Museum, said this week she and the museum have not heard of Radack nor are there any paintings from this source in the museum’s collections.
Arzamastsev said “I won’t be able to give information infringing on the interests of third parties. Because as it was accepted in that environment where I grew up, nobody has the right to spread information liable to cause damage to one’s acquaintances. You know, we sometimes prefer to keep silent not to touch upon some subjects.” He added that many of the works kept in the German basement during the war were “damaged by water from fire extinguishers, and a part of graphics had to be thrown out as the sheets have stuck together and weren’t subject to restoration.”