Italian's pledge to promote photographer pays off: Geraldine Norman talks to a family in Moscow about how photographs that were formerly owned by them came to be sold in the West for pounds 900,000

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The Independent Online
AN ITALIAN photographer has made pounds 892,320, less auctioneer's commission, out of a promise he gave in the 1960s - to make the work of the Russian photographer Alexander Rodchenko better known in the West.

He gave this promise in Moscow around 1965 to Rodchenko's daughter, Varvara Lavrentiev. In return she gave him a group of superb exhibition prints of her father's photographs, which had no commercial value at the time. Rodchenko (1891-1956) was a leading Russian avant- garde artist, designer and photographer of the revolutionary era, whose work was suppressed.

The pounds 892,320 made by the Italian was at a Christie's sale last October when 30 of the prints were auctioned. Pre-sale estimates put their value at pounds 200,000 but the quality of the images caused great excitement. Girl with Leica, an extraordinary sepia image of a girl with a camera round her neck, caught in bars of sunlight and shade, made pounds 115,500, the highest auction price on record for any photograph.

Today, Christie's will sell another 21 Rodchenko photographs from the same source. They are expected to fetch between pounds 160,000 and pounds 223,000, and will probably make a good deal more.

Rodchenko's family are less than happy about the sales. According to Mrs Lavrentiev, she had intended to lend the prints rather than give them away. Unfortunately, this was not made clear to her visitor.

I was told the story when I visited the family at the tiny studio apartment in Kirov Street, Moscow, that Rodchenko was allocated in 1922 and where Mrs Lavrentiev and her husband, their son Alexander and his family still live. They are all devoted to promoting the reputations of Rodchenko and his artist wife Varvara Stepanova. The family recently gave 500 paintings, drawings and photographs to the Pushkin Museum in Moscow.

Alexander, who speaks English and acts as the family spokesman, said that at the meeting with the Italian, Mrs Lavrentiev selected some of the best prints from the family archive in the hope that the photographer, Caio Garrubba, would arrange for their exhibition and publication outside Russia.

Christie's would not confirm their consignor's name but they were prepared to question him on my behalf. He said that the family gave him the photos as a gift in return for a promise that he would make Rodchenko's work better known in the West, a promise he has kept. He had sent the family a copy of the book on Rodchenko that he published in 1983, but he had not organised any exhibitions. Mrs Lavrentiev wrote to Christie's after the October sale suggesting that their consignor had received the photographs as a loan, rather than a gift. The reply came from their legal department and stated that Christie's would not have included the photographs in a sale if they had not seen documents proving the owner had the right to sell. If the family had any documentation of the transaction Christie's would be interested in seeing it.

'Since we have no documentation, we did not reply to their letter,' Alexander said.

Mr Lavrentiev explained that at the time his mother briefly met the Italian photographer, who was also a journalist, no one was interested in Rodchenko's work and she was desperately keen that the memory of her father's achievement should not be lost. 'No one ever spoke of the artist, no one had been interested, no one wanted to look at his work - this man looked like the gift of fate,' he said. 'As soon as he spoke of publicising the work, he was given all the necessary material for the undertaking.'

After that meeting, in about 1965, they heard no more. The Cold War made contact with the outside world virtually impossible. It was not until the early 1980s that Alexander Lavrentiev, who had received permission to travel to Germany, found a copy of the Caio Garrubba book in a bookshop. The family claims never to have received the copy he said that he sent to them. It had been published by Fabbri in a series called 'I Grandi Fotografi' and was titled Alexander Rodchenko, Artista del Fronte Proletario. Mr Lavrentiev bought the book but made no attempt to contact the author.

Then, last autumn, the family was told by Western friends of the large group of Rodchenko photographs coming up for sale at Christie's. At first, they thought the photographs must be fakes until Mrs Lavrentiev remembered the prints that she had handed to the Italian photographer during the 1960s. Some of the photographs were purchased at Christie's by Western friends of the family, who sent them photocopies of what appeared on the back of the prints. Mrs Lavrentiev recognised inscriptions in her own handwriting.

Mr Lavrentiev was resigned about the affair last week. 'We have accepted the situation as it is, without any horrible negative reaction,' he said. 'It won't change anything with Rodchenko or with us.'

He was much more interested in talking about the exhibition of photographs by four generations of his family at the Sander Gallery, New York. The exhibition, titled simply 'The Family', underlines the extraordinary tradition of creativity among the inhabitants of the old Kirov Street studio.

There are photographs by Alexander Rodchenko and his wife, Varvara Stepanova; by their daughter Varvara Lavrentiev, who makes photograms by placing objects on light sensitive paper; by her husband, Nicolai Lavrentiev, book designer, art editor and portrait photographer; by their son, Alexander, designer, photographer and writer; by his wife Irina Presnetsova, who makes photograms as book illustrations; and by their daughter, Ekaterina Lavrentieva, who, at 16, paints, draws and writes poetry.

(Photograph omitted)

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