249 A Russ by any other name

A criminal group of savvy Russian art historians and restorers is preying on Russian collectors by foisting off doctored Dutch and German landscapes of the 19th century as the work of Russian artists. The price differential is astronomical. According to Schwartz, the affair exposes the meaninglessness of nationalism in art.

When Sotheby’s in Amsterdam priced lot 95 in its upcoming March 7th auction, somebody on the De Boelelaan must have swallowed hard. Marinus Adrianus Koekkoek (1807-68), A summer landscape with peasants on a sandy track, estimate: 3,000 to 5,000 euros. Less than two years ago, in May 2004, when another summer landscape on a sandy track by the same master was coming up for sale at the London headquarters, the experts had estimated it at 550,000 to 700,000 pounds. The only difference between the two paintings was that the one in London was listed not as Marinus Koekkoek but, misled by a false signature, as the Russian artist Ivan Shishkin (1832-98). In the knowledgable assessment of the auction house, a Russian 19th-century painting is worth 200 times more than a Dutch painting of equal quality. (Or at least 20 times – the painting in question had actually been sold in 2003 at a Stockholm auction for 35,000 pounds.) Shortly before the London Koekkoek was about to sold as a Shishkin, it was discovered that the signature and a few small details had been falsified and the painting was withdrawn.

Anyone who thinks that the prices of art works (or of anything else, for that matter) are determined largely by intrinsic quality should pin up reproductions of these two Koekkoeks and think again. The important differences in value lay not in the paintings but in the buyers. Koekkoek buyers are relatively well-informed penny-pinchers who have already been traumatized by the burst of an earlier bubble. Russian bidders on Shishkins have less knowledge, (a lot) more money and a nationalistic hunger for Russian art. As for the inflated prices, a small London competitor of Sotheby’s, has said, “It’s still pocket change for the Russian billionaires."

When I first read about the Shishkin Koekkoek, I thought it was an isolated incident. It wasn’t. Last year Vladimir Petrov, a research curator at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow who now has to be protected by bodyguards, began exposing evidence of a gigantic fraud operation. A gang of well-informed art historians and skillful restorers graze the Western art market for paintings by minor 19th-century masters whose work bears a resemblance to certain Russian contemporaries. They pick up the most likely items and then, Petrov says, “they re-wet the paint to make additions and adjustments, including signatures.“ Western adults and cows are taken out, Russian children and geese are put in. The doctored paintings, furnished with certificates of authenticity by duped colleagues such as himself, then go into one of the London sales of Russian art that have become favored social events for those legendary New Russians with their billions.

At stake is the integrity not only of the altered paintings and the art market but also of the Russian soul. Shishkin was a founder of the Wanderers, a movement that rejected Western formalism in favor of Russian essentialism. His landscapes are said to “give a sense of the majesty of Russian forests and fields" (Dictionary of art). The fact that his paintings can be pushed out of the nest by cuckoos of the Dutch (and Düsseldorf) schools rather pulls the plug on the assumption that underlies the high prices: that the unique landscape of Mother Russia can only be portrayed by her own sons. But that, come to think of it, is the good news.


Sources: The Guardian, 12 July 2004; ArtNews Online, January 2006; The Washington Post, 28 January 2006. By all means read those articles. They contain more juicy details and ironies than I could fit into my column.


© 2006 Gary Schwartz. Published in Loekie Schwartz’s Dutch translation in Het Financieele Dagblad, 11 February 2006.

Last year the Dutch government broadcasting authority refused to allow the Lebanese Islamic television station Al Manar to be distributed in the Netherlands. The station preaches hate, they say. Dutch champions of what Ayaan Hirsi Ali called "the right to offend" at her press conference in Berlin last week, in support of the publication and republication of the Mohammed cartoons, did not protest, as far as I am aware. The right to offend apparently has its limits, after all: it is limited to the right to offend others.

[To avoid misunderstanding, the following footnote: I think that blocking Al Manar was the right thing to do. My problem with Hirsi Ali and the small camp around her and the late Theo van Gogh is that their indignant opposition to self-censorship is offensively selective and in fact boils down to anti-Muslim discrimination. Self-censorship is a necessary condition for human society.]

The publisher of my new Rembrandt book, Jan Martens of Mercatorfonds, has exceeded all my expectations in placing co-editions. In a very difficult market, he has succeeded in selling five language editions (English, Dutch, French, German and Spanish) of this big, expensive book to eight publishers. The German publisher, Beck Verlag, has it up on its website at ca. 68 euros. But they do not know yet that the book is going to be longer than they (and Mercatorfonds) bargained for. The readers are reading, the editors editing, the translators translating and the designer designing at my heels. As soon as I finish a chapter it goes into the mill. Yesterday I promised Martens (again) to redouble my efforts to finish the text. According to the spreadsheet I keep on the book, I have now written 124,651 of the 137,651 words that I can get into it. Even though I should have been finished a long time ago, and even though I have been unable to shift into that Star-Wars turbo overdrive I have been waiting for, I still think I’m going to make it in time for the book to appear in the spring in Europe and late summer in the States. Excuse me for being a bit absent in the meanwhile.

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