Russian Avant-Garde Art: Police Break Up Suspected Forgery Ring

But now an entire epoch -- the Russian avant-garde -- has become suspect. The market is flooded with works from the first decades of the 20th century that are said to have been newly discovered. But few can prove their provenance beyond a doubt.

There are historical reasons for this chaos. After the 1917 October Revolution, Soviet museums acquired avant-garde works en masse. Some painters, including Malevich, even made copies of their own works to meet the production goals of Lenin's massive state. Then, under Joseph Stalin, the only works of art that counted were eye-catching, monumental pieces in the Socialist realist style, while the abstract work of avant-garde artists was denounced as "decadent and bourgeois."

The flourishing trade in Russian avant-garde art didn't take off in a big way until the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the "rediscovered" paintings often had thrilling stories to back them up. Some came from secret government warehouses, one hears, while others were carefully hidden family possessions.

Operation Malefiz

While investigating suspected money laundering, agents of Lahav 433, a new law-enforcement organization known as the "Israeli FBI," stumbled upon this scene more or less by chance. They discovered that some of their suspects were apparently also dealing in art forgeries. When they discovered a gallery in the western German city of Wiesbaden that they suspected of crooked dealings, they brought their counterparts at Germany's BKA into the investigation.

In a covert operation, German and Israeli police monitored telephone conversations and email correspondence while tracing shady cash flows around the globe. In June, the investigators finally struck in a concerted action under the code name "Malefiz" (the name of a German board game, but also an obsolete word for a crime or misdeed). They searched apartments, galleries and offices in both Israel and Germany, froze Swiss bank accounts and confiscated hundreds of works of art.

In a single furniture store in Wiesbaden, BKA agents discovered nearly 1,000 suspicious paintings, drawings and watercolors that were apparently being stored for future sale. The storeroom was not climate controlled and lacked any special security system -- hardly a way to store goods worth millions.

The raid led to the arrest of two art dealers, Itzhak Z., 67, and Moez Ben H., 41, identified in this way due to German privacy laws. According to the files on their case, the two are strongly suspected of "fraudulently selling for profit forged Russian avant-garde works of art presumably produced in Israel and Russia." Among the two suspects' offerings were works from the same "Natanov Collection" that had caused such a stir at the 2005 exhibition in Perm.

A 'Family Inheritance'

That collection, also the source of the supposed Kandinsky painting "K19," was largely unknown to German art experts. Only the small art magazine Artprofil devoted a lengthy article to this "private, museum-quality art collection." According to the article, Edik Natanov hails from a distinguished family from Samarkand, Uzbekistan, that has collected art "for generations."

The grandfather, Mikhail, was supposedly a "well-traveled scholar" who headed a collective farm during the Soviet era, acquiring most of the works in the current art collection in the 1950s. After his death, according to Artprofil, these paintings passed into the hands of his son and then, in 1995, to his grandson Edik.

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