The collapse of the Soviet Union flooded the art market with works of often uncertain provenance. German and Israeli police now believe they have broken up a "cartel" suspected of selling hundreds of Russian avant-garde forgeries worth tens of millions.
Dusk was falling over the foothills of the Ural Mountains as art lovers from Perm, 1,150 kilometers (700 miles) east of Moscow, witnessed a minor sensation. On this evening in May 2005, the state-run art gallery on Komsomolskiy Prospekt presented a series of spectacular Russian avant-garde masterpieces that had unexpectedly re-emerged from the dim recesses of history. Among these works were a composition by El Lissitzky, a "Portrait of a Woman in Blue" by Aristarkh Lentulov and a painting by Kazimir Malevich that had been unknown until then even within the art world.
This extravagant exhibition came from the private collection of a mysterious businessman named Edik Natanov, an art lover who attended the show's opening in a dark suit and black T-shirt, presenting his motivations as altruistic. "I wanted to show people something they had never seen before," Natanov told a television crew, smiling modestly.
Perm's art enthusiasts didn't get to see the jewel of Natanov's collection, though. "K19," an avant-garde effusion of color bearing Wassily Kandinsky's well-preserved signature, was at an auction house in Milan at that moment, where it was up for sale for several million euros.
In this oil painting, dated 1919, respected Moscow art professor Valery Turchin believed he recognized not only Kandinsky's complex visual language, but also the "erratic glow of spiritualized matter." Additionally, Turchin wrote in an exhibition catalogue, the work contained unmistakable religious references to the apocalypse and the Last Judgment.
The secular justice system, however, was not quite so effusive in its praise of the supposed masterpiece. In fact, a Milan criminal court ruled earlier this year that "K19" was nothing but a forgery. Working on behalf of the Italian court, appraisers had determined that the purported Kandinsky could "hardly" have been painted in 1919 and must have originated decades after the artist's death, in 1944. In fact, they found that some of the paint on the canvas was "not even completely dry."
Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), headquartered in Wiesbaden, has taken an interest in the case as well. BKA investigators believe that two of Natanov's long-standing business partners, who sought to sell the purported Kandinsky painting in Italy, are the "marketing directors" of a cartel that, in their view, has flooded the art market with forged works of Russian avant-garde artists. According to the BKA, this group "operates internationally" and has sold at least 400 paintings, each for "four- to seven-figure euro sums" and generally to private collectors. The total profits from such activities -- if the BKA's suspicions prove true -- reach at least into the double-digit millions.
This places the art world at the cusp of a new forgery scandal sure to overshadow all previous ones. In the past, forgers tended to focus primarily on the oeuvre of individual artists. Wolfgang Beltracchi, for example, hoodwinked the art world with works in the style of Max Ernst and Heinrich Campendonk, while a would-be German "count" put several hundred Giacometti forgeries into circulation.