The nouveau fakes: Russian avant-garde forgeries

The country's new rich have millions to spend – and are falling victim to an age-old ruse, says Andrew Johnson

They are paintings created in the crucible of social turmoil, their sharp blocks of colour and abstract geometric forms signifying a bold new direction in art and society.

The avant-garde works by the likes of Malevich, Popova, Kandinsky and Goncharova are attracting bigger and bigger prices at auction – last year Goncharova became the highest-selling female artist – and decorate the mansions of Russia's oligarchs and new business elite. There is just one problem. Most of them are fakes.

Such is the popularity of the revolutionary art movements such as Constructivism and Suprematism, which spread through Russia in the early part of the 20th century, that forgers are glutting the market. Art experts estimate that at least 50 per cent, and as many as 80 per cent, of works offered for sale in a market worth millions of pounds are forgeries.

For years, their artists – who believed that art should have a social, rather than purely decorative purpose – have been largely forgotten. Now Russia's new rich have rediscovered the Russian avant-garde, and have turned it into one of the most lucrative art markets in the world.

But William MacDougall, of the specialist London Russian auctioneers MacDougall's, said that more than half of the works submitted to his auction house are fakes. "It's a particular problem with Russian art," he said. "There are wealthy people who have made great mistakes. Your typical Rembrandt collector would have started at a young age with etchings, then moved on to lithographs and would have 25 years' experience before buying an oil painting. A Russian collector has a £100m fortune, aged 35, and starts buying a great deal at once. The prices are huge, big enough to motivate dishonest people."

He added: "There are more fakes around than genuine works. Half of the work we receive we reject on grounds of authenticity. The most difficult period to authenticate is the avant-garde art of the 1920s."

Peter Aven, president of Moscow's Alfa-Bank and one of the country's biggest collectors of avant-garde art, told ARTnews magazine that the number of fakes on the market was "colossal": "Russian buyers have entered the market, and the new demand has provoked a wave of fakes."

But it's not just avant-garde artists who are being forged. The demand for Russian work saw the auction house Sotheby's embarrassed in 2004 when it put up for sale a landscape by the 19th-century artist Ivan Shishkin, only for it to be revealed to be a Dutch painting in Shishkin's style that had been touched up by a forger.

One of the problems is that Russian works do not have the same documentation – proving their history from their first sale onwards – as many Western paintings from the same era, said Dr Nicholas Eastaugh, whose Art Access and Research company uses the latest scientific techniques to examine the materials used in paintings.

"I've been doing a lot of work on Russian art over the last two years, and there are a lot of fakes around," said Dr Eastaugh. "People are trying to buy their national heritage. The key works are from 1910 to the 1920s. There was a lot of chaos. Many works were destroyed afterwards or sent to remote provinces, which means documentation is poor. So looking into the history is problematic."

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power