Master forger's legacy goes on sale

Fake icons: Forced confession from 80 years ago is found in Russian archives
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The Independent Online
A copy of the signed confession of a forger who made seven gold icons to be offered for sale at Sotheby's this morning, at prices ranging from pounds 800 to pounds 6,000, has been handed to the Independent.

All of the icons are catalogued as gold plaques "enamelled in the 12th- century style" and depict saints and the Holy Family in bright enamel colours on a gold background, a style characteristic of the Byzantine age. Sotheby's had realised they were not 12th-century but no one knew who made them until now. Its experts described the discovery as "exciting".

It turns out to have been a craftsman who worked in St Petersburg at the turn of the century for Carl Faberge, the famous Russian jeweller.

Tatiana Faberge, his great-granddaughter, recently found the confession - written in 1916 - in the archives of the Russian Academy of Sciences in St Petersburg, with the help of Valentin Skurlov, a jewellery historian. She and Skurlov are working on a biography of Faberge's chief workmaster, Franz P Birbaum. It was Birbaum who first recognised the deception and forced a confession from the forger, Petr Nikolayevich Popov.

The confession is signed with an X, since Popov was illiterate. At that time the gold icons belonged to a Russian called M P Botkin, the artist son of a rich merchant family who formed a magnificent collection of medieval and Renaissance art which he bequeathed to the Russian nation just before the 1917 Russian revolution.

According to Skurlov, the Soviet artist Igor Grabar also noticed that the icons were fakes and persuaded the Russian government to sell them off in the 1930s. Botkin's collection included 150 enamel icons of the type for sale at Sotheby's, of which Popov confessed to making 109. Others are now in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum, in New York, the Cleveland Museum and Dunbarton Oaks. The museums all bought their icons in good faith, believing them to be genuine Byzantine pieces. In 1988, David Buckton, of the British Museum, unmasked them as later imitations.

The icons were apparently made to dupe Botkin. The mastermind was a fashionable photographer - the David Bailey of the day - called Stepan Iurevich Sabin-Gus. A collector of genuine Byzantine relics,Sabin-Gus seems to have recognised Botkin as having more money than sense and produced the fake icons.

Popov says in his confession that he worked for Sabin-Gus over a 17-year period. "The execution was surrounded by mystery. More than once, the room where Popov was working was locked, obviously to prevent incidental visits by clients of Sabin-Gus's photographic establishment," Birbaum wrote after extracting the confession.

Popov's speciality was bending fine wires of gold into patterned cells which would then be filled with coloured glass paste (enamel) and fired. Popov told Birbaum that Sabin-Gus enamelled the images himself at a local jeweller's shop.

Botkin was taken in. The magnificent catalogue of his collection published in 1911, a rare copy of which is also for sale at Sotheby's (valued at pounds 400-pounds 600), includes his comments on Byzantine enamels. He wrote: "The difficulty of the cloisonne technique, or rather the lost skill, makes forgery almost impossible."

John Stuart, Sotheby's Russian art expert, was amazed to hear of the confession yesterday. "It was always a mystery," he said. "At one time they were thought to be genuine. Obviously it's very exciting that this document has been discovered."

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