ART OF THE ZERO CATEGORY
“Whoever does not miss the Soviet Union has no heart. Whoever wants it back has no brain.” - Vladimir Putin
If only someone had told me on, September 11, 2004, that the next day, at 14:36:55 PDT, I’d click my computer’s mouse and purchase a painting, a painting that appeared to be in the style of the great Russian avant garde master Alexander Rodchenko. If only they had told me that for the next ten years I’d be shepherding a collection of highly questionable paintings through the darkest corridors of the art world. If I had been told that I’d be dealing with the FBI, and that the FBI would ask me via a lawyer if I’d consider involving myself in a sting operation directed against the Russian Mafia if it turned out that the paintings were stolen; If I’d known that I’d be dealing with a $900/hour Park Avenue attorney, a Wall Street art bounty hunter, the CEO of one of the worlds top auction houses and an art authentication expert who seemed to have walked right out of the pages of Alice in Wonderland, and last but not least - an art appraiser who, convinced the paintings were genuine, would value 30 of the 181 paintings that we ended up acquiring at over fifty million dollars. If they had told me that deep into this journey, I’d hear first-hand from an Israeli art dealer of death threats she received because she fell in love with and decided to deal in this type of art. If I had been told that there was a Russian oligarch who collects this type of work and that he is attempting to control the market of artwork just like the one that I was purchasing with the click of my mouse, on September 12, 2004 at 14:36:55 Pacific Daylight Time.
Little did I know, then, that my twitching finger would also connect me to a global underground market that was trading in this type of Russian art - art with a murky and troubled past. Little did I know that my brother Roger, our friend Brad Gessner, and I were entering a game in which we’d become both players and pawns; our position on the board can flip from one event to the next.
In the book “The Phenomenon of the Ukrainian Avant-Garde 1910-1935,” by Myroslav Shkandrij (Winnipeg Art Gallery, March 2002) he writes of Soviet-era storage vaults called “Spetsfonds,” a word which means special files. These “special files” were storage facilities created during Stalin’s purges of 1937 - 1939, to hold cultural material that was deemed contrary to the Soviet project of creating a society in which people were cogs in a machine. There was no room for individualistic spirit - the spirit that is so richly celebrated in the seemingly harmless and wonderful works in our collection. In the passage that I cite, the author chronicles the mechanisms used to dismiss art and literature that was to be destroyed or hidden in these secret vaults. Museum workers made the decision to place such works in what they called the “Zero Category,” a category specifically designated for museum holdings with “low artistic quality that have no museum value.” We have been told by some of the people who have contacted us that these storage facilities are where our paintings were once likely housed, and that when the former Soviet Union collapsed and Russia went into a prolonged state of social and economic turmoil, these works made their way out of dark storage and onto the black market - and eventually to us via the newly emerged global market, which can be accessed with the click of a mouse.
There is a second and much more dominant narrative that’s used to explain the sudden appearance of works such as ours; that they’re all forgeries. It doesn’t take much investigating into the topic to discover accounts that attempt to explain the possible origins of the forged Russian avant garde artworks. In the 2014 book titled “Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, The Surreal Heart of the New Russia” author Peter Pomerantsev makes the claim that “Much of the Russian avant garde art on the market is fake. Churned out in factories run by Russian crime syndicates in Israel and Germany, then confirmed by Western art historians.” A Forbes article from January 2009 titled “Skamsky Inc”., by Heidi Brown, claims “As Soviet Jews began immigrating to Israel and the West in large numbers, their relatives packed them off with paintings - many of them fakes to help them earn cash in their new homelands.” The Forbes article even goes on to claim that “KGB agents spirited forgeries out of the country into Western markets.”
In July of 2009, the magazine Art News published an article titled, “The Faking of the Russian Avant Garde.” The authors were Konstantin Akinsha and Art News editor Sylvia Hochfield. In the article, collector Peter Aven, president of Moscow’s Alfa Bank, claims that the quantity of Russian avant garde fakes is “colossal.” The article goes on to talk about forgeries, but not so much about avant garde forgeries. The article mentions a continental European landscape painting that had been re-signed with a Russian signature to make the work appeal to Russian buyers. They talk about fake Fabergé, which they refer to as “Fauxbrege.” They mention fake religious icons as well. Any mention of actual avant garde forgeries is purely anecdotal; no concrete examples of a proven forgery is ever given. Peter Aven’s voice runs throughout the article, and at one point he says that he only buys works with “100 percent provenance.” That’s a pretty high bar considering the fact that this type of art was basically thrown into the rubbish heap of Russian history for the better part of sixty years.
In his memoir, pioneering collector of Russian avant garde art George Costakis tells of paying a visit to the home of a relative of the artist Liubov Popova. Popova was a seminal figure in the Russian avant garde movement. Though she died at a young age, her contribution to the avant garde movement was immense. Her works are rare and highly prized now, but when Costakis paid a visit to her family’s home in the 1960s, he was shocked to see one of her paintings on plywood being used to board up a broken window. In a New York Times article in June of 2012, another early collector of Russian avant garde art, Valery Dudakov, tells about finding a work by the avant garde master Mikhial Larionov in a “ramshackle antique shop” for the price of two bottles of vodka and that was in the 1970s. The shop in which he found the painting was just blocks from the Kremlin.
Actually, the physical and social disregard of this type art in Russia follows a path that has many historic precedents, even outside of Russia. I suspect most of us can think of some great building that now only exists in memory or pictures. For me, it’s Louis Sullivan’s Chicago Stock Exchange building that was demolished in 1972. If one looks back historically, it becomes glaringly apparent that many significant objects fall from grace and are then either lost or destroyed. Our past is an invisible graveyard full of missing people and things. It’s easy to forget this; we are so encouraged, even forced - for the sake of our own survival - to live in the present.
Anthropologist Michael Thompson is the author of a book called “Rubbish Theory: The Creation and Destruction of Value.” (Oxford University Press, 1979). In his book, Thompson explores the ways in which objects travel through time. He explains how objects are often initially viewed as consumables: a car, a building, an artwork. He describes how often these things lose, then regain value after they have been nearly lost or destroyed. Art objects are often subject to the same whims of fashion as any other consumable. At the turn of the century, works by the artist Adolphe-William Bouguereau sold for far more money than any other artist of his time. Today very few people even know who he was.
The truth is that most museums have objects with voids in their ownership and history. In fact, one of the hottest areas in law these days is that of art bounty hunting (Crow, Kelly. “The Bounty Hunters.” Wall Street Journal [New York] 23 Mar. 2007: n. pag. Print). Lawyers comb through the holdings of museums looking for art objects with gaps in their lineage, hoping to find a family’s missing fortune that was looted, stolen or lost. Museums are often at the mercy of attorneys and claimants, particularly if the artwork in question was acquired shortly after World War Two. There have been a number of high profile cases in recent years. In 2008 Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum settled a claim and agreed to forfeit five paintings by the Russian artist Kasimir Malevich. The museum had acquired a large collection of works by Malevich in the late 1950’s from a German gentleman who had been a friend of Malevich. Malevich had traveled to Germany in 1927 to exhibit his work. After the exhibit he left the collection of works that he’d exhibited with this German friend. Malevich returned to Russia under the assumption that he’d later be returning to Germany and would retrieve the paintings. Upon his return to Russia he was detained, questioned and briefly imprisoned. He died in 1935, never making it back to Germany. In the 1990’s enterprising lawyers tracked down the Malevich family heirs, and filed suit against the Stedelijk. The museum eventually relinquished the five works. One of the five paintings sold at Sotheby’s in 2010 for sixty million dollars.
Interestingly, a painting in our collection has the inscription “U.S. ARMY” hand carved on its frame. It is documented that when German forces raided Kiev in 1941, they took all of the art that they could find. They even raided the Spetsfonds. Records indicate that approximately two thousand Soviet-censored artworks were looted from Kiev Spetsfonds by the invading German soldiers. Only three hundred artworks were returned to Kiev at the end of the war. In 2001 some of these returned artworks were the subject of an exhibit at the Winnepeg Art Gallery in Canada. Theaforementioned book which accompanied the exhibit, entitled “The Phenomenon of the Ukrainian Avant Garde 1910-1935” has an essay written by the art historian Svetlana Ryabicheva. As she explains, “Some works were transported to Germany by the Fascist invaders. They were returned to Kiev in 1947 from Konigsburg via Leningrad and deposited there, along with other works stolen during the occupation from various museums of the former Soviet Union.”
The forgery narrative that is so prevalent in today’s media regarding works of Russian avant garde art seems oblivious to the realities of Russia’s past. As Wikipedia’s definition of presentism states, “According to presentism, events and entities that are wholly past or wholly future do not exist at all.” In fact, this doctrinal philosophy seems to be the ideological tool that is being implemented throughout current Russian culture. The author and Russia watcher David Satter wrote a book about this distortion, appropriately titled, “It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past.” (Yale University Press, 2013). David Satter makes the argument that Russia has failed to address the tragedy of its communist past by denying it. It would seem that the 100% ironclad provenance required by Peter Aven also requires a 100% ironclad ideological presentism.
If the paintings are fake, is it because Russia’s past is trying to re-express itself? Is the void of a lost past being filled by charlatans who are exploiting this vacuum, as some claim? Or are these claims by Peter Aven and his compatriots of “colossal” quantities of forged Russian avant garde artworks flooding the market merely attempts by Russia’s political and ruling class to tell the world, and themselves, to avert their gaze from the scene of an accident? Is it Russia’s past, near or far, that spawned these orphaned artworks?
Fake or genuine, these artworks bring into high relief the rupture in Russia’s sense of its own historical narrative. Is the tenuous thread of Russia’s ideological mooring to the present a major reason that these paintings, and others like them, produce such ire? It must be remembered that no other modern state repressed and discarded in such a brutal and thorough manner an entire intellectual and creative class. An ideological “presentist” would happily have us forget this.
In 2010, we exhibited our collection at Denver’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Word of the exhibit spread like wildfire through the tiny world of Russian avant garde art. We were immediately contacted by people from far and wide, individuals from England, Israel, The Netherlands, Germany and Russia. All were excited that we had taken the risk to exhibit our collection. Through them, we were made even more aware of the machinations of the murky world of collecting this type of art. It wasn’t a pretty picture. There was an intense sense of frustration amongst scholars, dealers and collectors. They all had their tales to tell of running into the same brick wall; it seemed nearly impossible to overcome the forgery narrative that was so dominant in the mainstream press. The sense was that the Russian media machine was being used full-force to paint anyone who dares to ask for an investigation of the situation, or offers a conflicting narrative, as a nut, or even worse, a criminal. Case in point; the highly regarded Russian avant garde scholar Elana Basner is currently facing a ten year prison sentence for offering her opinion that a painting purported to be by the artist Boris Grigoriev was genuine. In Russia the allegations against Professor Basner sent a chill through the Russian intelligentsia.Hermitage Museum director Mikhail Piotrovsky called Basner’s placement in custody “spitting on the intelligentsia.” (The Moscow News, May 5, 2014).
I must confess all of these bizarre and seemingly agenda-driven stories that we kept hearing were so unsettling that I was on the verge of losing hope of ever righting our situation and discovering the truth. To make things even stranger, the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Denver, where we’d exhibited the collection was interviewed on our local public radio station where he proclaimed that he was “convinced” that some of the paintings in our collection were “painted by the masters.” I was recently forwarded an e-mail from a deposed Russian curator who lives in Moscow. In the e-mail she calls our collection “The red flag for the Russian bull.” In April of 2014 my brother Roger and I paid a visit to a leading scholar of Russian avant garde art. He suggested that we have another exhibit of the collection, and this time hang the works in our collection side by side with works known to be by the Russian masters. He mentioned that the Getty Research Institute would be an appropriate venue. He also suggested that we approach The Russian State Museum in Saint Petersburg. We recoiled at the suggestion that we send the paintings to be exhibited in Russia - of course we said if we sent them to Russia we may never see the paintings again, to which he replied, “At least then you’d know that they’re real”. I genuinely felt as though we had gone so far down the rabbit hole that we’d never find our way back out.
In July of 2013, three Israeli nationals were arrested in Germany. A Der Spiegel news account of the arrests reported that the German police had broken up a cartel of shady art forgers and dealers, who dealt exclusively in Russian avant garde art. I read this and several similar articles about the arrests and seizures. I was looking to see if there were any familiar names. Toward the end of one of the reports, a name that I recognized stood out - that of Erhard Jaegers. I’ve never corresponded with Mr. Jaegers but I was familiar with him and his work. He is a highly regarded chemist and forensic pigment analyst - an art sleuth. He recently played a role in the capture of the art forger Wolfgang Beltracchi. At the tail end of one of the articles about the arrests, there was a statement by Jaegers in which he expressed the belief that the seized artworks may indeed be genuine. Apparently he had done a great deal of analysis of the artworks for the men who had been arrested and charged with selling the questioned artworks. According to Jaegers, the artworks were chemically dated to be of the Russian avant garde period.
A couple of months after hearing about the arrests in Germany I received an e-mail from David Harel. David is steward of his late father’s collection of Russian avant garde art. David’s father was Yossi Harel, a great Israeli hero and by any measure a larger than life figure. In 1947, Yossi was the commander of a ship called The Exodus, a boat that illegally sailed into the Port of Haifa, a brazen act that played an important role in the creation of the Israeli state. The exploit became the subject of the Leon Uris book Exodus, which was later made into a film by Otto Preminger. In the film, Yossi is played by Paul Newman. Yossi went on to help form and then head the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad. The list of his life achievements is simply too long and impressive for me to do justice here, but suffice it to say he was a titan. Yossi passed away in 2009 at the age of 90. In the last few years of his life he began to passionately collect Russian avant garde art.
I had corresponded with David a few times in the past; he was one of the people who reached out to us after the exhibit. He had sent me the abstract of a book that he was working on called “The Missing Malevichs.” One of David’s coauthors was forensic chemist Erhard Jagaers. In David’s e-mail, he stated that he suspected that the paintings in our collection were of the same grouping as the paintings that his father had collected. David contends that many of these orphaned artworks came out of the Ukrainian State Museum’s Spetsfond. At this point I felt that anything was possible, but probably not provable. I relayed my skepticism to David. David then sent me a professionally produced video. In the video, museum curator Yulia Lytvynets leads Professor of Slavic Studies at Canada’s University of Manitoba, Myroslav Shkandrij, through the maze of The National Art Museum of Ukraine’s subterranean art storage. Paintings are stacked against the walls. What appear to be rolls of works on canvas are laying on the floor, and paintings are packed into shelves. At one point in the video Ms. Lytvynets passes her hand behind a wall of metal shelves and points to a door. The door is secured behind steel bars. She reaches behind the steel bars, points her hand directly at the rusted iron door, and says “Spetsfond.” Soon after she makes this gesture, the camera pans to Professor Shkandrij, who reaches into a stack of paintings and lifts out an avant garde painting. This storage facility and others like it are where David believes all of our paintings came from.
David then sent me copies of Soviet-era museum inventory ledgers. According to David, the ledgers indicate that there are over 1,000 missing paintings. All of the missing works were purchased between 1919-1923 by the State Art Fund and stored at the Museum of Pictorial Culture in Moscow and Leningrad. Many of these missing artworks were later transferred to outlying provincial museums. The missing works are listed as being by artists such as Kasimir Malevich, Liubov Popova, Alexandra Exter; these lists go on and on.
On a website dedicated to our collection, David spotted an image of a small paper label with an ink stamp. The stamp translates from Russian to “Checked” or “Checked in” and has a date of 1939, the last year of Stalin’s purges. The date of 1939 also coincides with the creation of the Spetsfonds. The painting’s label is affixed to what is potentially the most significant painting in the entire collection. The painting is of a simple white cross formed by four black squares on a white background. It appears in a myriad of aspects to be by the artist Kasimir Malevich. One day in my e-mail in-box there is a message from David with an attachment. The attachment is an image of a nearly identical ink stamp that he had discovered on a Russian bibliophile website. The book in which the ink stamp appears was known to have been censored by the Soviets.
David then sends me scientific work-ups on some of the paintings from his late father’s collection. The scientific analysis makes it clear that the paintings are period works - not forgeries. All of the tests look precisely as they should, the reports are thorough and very extensive. When David writes about the testing there is an emphatic tone that bends and warps into something poetic. In one of his emails he states, “The paintings are old by 3 different tests. First is the Ultra violet light. A very inexpensive easily available test. For the oil to reflect back to the camera the painting must be 50 years old. Any newer paint will absorb the light and display a black spot. Second is the curing of oil. Oil burns with oxygen and cures, emitting heat. This process takes 60 years. A paint that does not emits heat on any part is old. The third test is c-14, a well known test that is used to date archaeological items. This test is particularly useful for us as it can identify by the level of c-14 if the organic materials in the paintings lived before or after the atomic age of 1945. The organic materials are the oil itself, canvas, honey and sturgeon glue that was used to protect the canvas from the curing oil and as a glue). Ron will find honey on the back of some of the paintings. You have honey that was produced by bees that lived when Stalin was alive…”
David also sent me a note along with the scientific data where he speaks of the reason for his relentless quest. He writes, “My ‘obsession’ with finding the source of the paintings is to complete the work of my father.”
Looking at photographs of the paintings that Yossi collected, I was reminded exactly why we were all drawn to this art in the first place. There is an innocence and spiritual beauty to this work that is so easy to loose sight of when the only thing that is ever talked about when referencing them is their status as fake or real. Seeing the photographs of the paintings that were once Yossi’s, and that now belong to David - for the first time in a long time my heart was lightened. Ten years of struggle, all of the insanity, I was reminded in maybe the most poignant way possible why people go out on a limb to save this orphaned art.
When I attempt to tell people this story I often find myself explaining it in terms of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Most people can relate to the absurdity that Alice faces as she tries to maneuver through the rabbit hole with its absurd obstacle course. For most people the hookah smoking caterpillar they encounter in their daily life may be the entrenched bureaucrat at the Department of Motor Vehicles or the voice on the other end of a phone when they’re trying to extract a claim from an insurance company. I’ve found that most people can relate to the story if I frame it in these terms.
But the rabbit hole of the art world that we fell into…I think we can honestly say that we’ve played croquet with The Queen of Hearts and dutifully take orders from The White Rabbit, and through it all we’ve somehow managed to avoid a beheading. We’ve grown accustomed to the unusual and bogus social hierarchy of the world that we’ve entered.
When I tell myself the story I frame things differently. The way I see it, when I clicked that mouse on September 12, 2004 at 14:36:55 PDT we didn’t go down a rabbit hole, we fell through a trap door and into a deep well. A trap door opened under my chair and, like mountain climbers who are roped together, Roger, Brad and I fell into the well’s deep abyss. We’ve been extremely lucky in the sense that we now know that we are not alone. We’ve discovered that there are other wells and other trap door victims. They live in far away places like Germany, Israel, England and Russia. Somehow we’ve made friends with these distant captives, by using the clicking mouse. We captives all have one thing that we share in common, the walls of all of our wells are covered with pictures, pictures of a past that we all refuse to let be forgotten.
I was recently contacted by Mr. Andreas Gross, the attorney who is defending the three Israeli men who are currently being held in a German jail, accused of selling forged Russian avant-garde art. I gave the attorney the name of the man who sold us our collection as well as the names of every person that was in anyway involved in shipping the paintings to us and receiving bank transfers from us. Our policy has always been one of utter transparency when dealing with anyone with a legal or law enforcement related inquiry. Our primary hope is to discover the true origins of these enigmatic artworks. Early, during the acquisition of our collection, we inquired of the seller for an explanation as to how he came to own these works that he was selling us. He explained that he had acquired the artworks when he and a couple of other men (who he described as dealers) split the contents of an unclaimed shipping container purchased in Berlin at an unclaimed freight auction some 20 Years ago.
Mr. Gross relayed to me his strategy to exonerate his clients, “I can assure you, we really try hard to convince the judges in Wiesbaden, that the artworks offered by my client have been genuine ones.”
Soon after hearing from the attorney I received an email from David Harel. David forwarded me court documents showing that the Israeli police were recently ordered by the courts to return the paintings that they had seized in Israel in conjunction with the German seizures (the accused men had a gallery in Tel Aviv before moving their operation to Germany). The court docket instructs the Israeli police to return the seized works on the basis that the police are unable to prove that the questioned works were in fact forgeries.