Belgian museum’s unseen Russian avant-garde art could be fake, experts warn

A group of leading scholars and dealers has signed a letter criticizing an exhibition of Russian avant-garde art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent. The experts question the origins of the previously unseen artworks, saying they have no traceable records.

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The display at the Museum voor Schone Kunsten (MSK) in Ghent, Belgium opened on October 20th, 2017 and showed 26 new pieces that were were given to the museum on long-term loan. The artworks were attributed to Kazimir Malevich, Wassily Kandinsky, Alexander Rodchenko, Vladimir Tatlin, Lazar el Lissitzky, Alexei Jawlensky, Natalia Goncharova, Mikhail Larionov, and other artists of the Russian avant-garde.

“All the works exhibited could be defined as highly questionable,” an open letter signed by 11 high-profile experts and published by the Art Newspaper states. “They have no exhibition history, have never before been reproduced in serious scholarly publications, and have no traceable sales records.”

“The exhibited paintings by Wassily Kandinsky and Alexei von Jawlenski are not included in the catalogues raisonnés — internationally recognised as definitive sources for authentication of works of these artists,” it continues.

Practically all the works raise numerous questions, the letter states. For example: “Objects such as a box and distaff allegedly decorated by Kazimir Malevich have no known analogues, and there are no historical records that even mention that the artist ever was involved in the decoration of such objects.”

Raising more suspicion, the letter states that there is no information on the artworks’ origins on the museum’s website, or about how the exhibition was organized.

Among the signatories are art historians Dr. Natalia Murray of the Courtauld Institute, who organized the Royal Academy's “Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932” in 2017, Dr Vivian Endicott Barnett, a Kandinsky expert, and Professor Aleksandra Shatskikh, who has written several books on Malevich. Among the dealers is one of the leading authorities on Russian art, James Butterwick.

All the artworks were loaned to the museum by the Dieleghem Foundation, a charity owned by Brussels-based Russian businessman and art collector Igor Toporovski.

In October, Belgian press reported that Toporovski said that he can prove the authenticity of every work and show their sales records.

"If there are scientific questions, my experts and I can answer and show all its sources,” Toporovski is quoted as saying by La Libre Belgique. He told the paper that his collection was comprised of works from several sources including his and his wife’s family inheritance and his own purchases. The Ghent museum also told The Art Newspaper that it has all the documents required for the artworks.

Text: Ekaterina Motyakina