Whether that story is truth or fiction, the fact remains that, in early July 2002, five items from the collection, including the dubious Kandinsky, turned up on loan to an art museum in Pereslavl-Zalessky, a town 140 kilometers (87 miles) northeast of Moscow. The delivery receipt was signed by Edik Natanov.
At the time, the heir of this putative art fortune was president of a diamond trading company based in Israel while also getting involved in the gallery business in Wiesbaden. In August 2002, he founded his own art dealership together with Itzhak Z., who is now in prison, and another partner, Daniel S.
The three business partners rented upscale commercial space in a historic building on Wiesbaden's Taunusstrasse and invested several hundred thousand euros in renovations, with the plan of creating an exclusive exhibition space. They also installed a walk-in safe for the paintings in the building's cellar. And they were quick to give their company an international-sounding name, combining the first letters of each of their last names to call themselves "SNZ Galeries," although they evidently failed to note that in English the word "galleries" is spelled with two l's.
Fake It Till You Make It By this point, the trade in Russian avant-garde art was in full swing. By March 2002, a piece from the "Natanov Collection" found its way to an auction house in Frankfurt. This constructivist portrait, titled "The Writer" and supposedly painted by Nadezhda Udaltsova between 1915 and 1920, was valued at €100,000 ($130,000). But then, the auctioneer recalls, he received a call telling him the painting was a fake. To be on the safe side, he pulled it from the auction.
Business got better as time went on. In 2004, the Triton Foundation, an art foundation established by a wealthy Dutch couple that had made its fortune in shipping, purchased a "Natanov" piece, "Dynamic Composition" by Alexandra Exter. Several hundred thousand euros are believed to have changed hands.
According to a Russian exhibition catalogue published in 2003, at that time, Natanov's collection included at least 18 Russian avant-garde pieces, including two Malevich works, two Jawlenskys and the supposed Kandinsky composition "K19."
It was with this last painting that Itzhak Z., Natanov's fellow gallery owner, evidently hoped to make millions. Original Kandinskys come onto the market only rarely -- and they fetch top prices.
The hurdles that must be cleared to make such a sale, however, are high. Any piece that hasn't received approval from the Paris-based Société Kandinsky is more or less impossible to sell on the established art market. The society, founded by Kandinsky's widow, Nina, keeps close watch over the artist's body of work, and auction houses only accept pieces listed in the society's catalogue.
"K19" didn't have that stamp of approval. So, to sell the painting, Natanov's business partners needed a broker who could connect them with the gray market.
Business Ups and Downs
One such man was an Italian named Andrea N. At the time, N. was working for a gallery in Paris that bought and sold works by Modigliani and Picasso, but he was not averse to doing a little business on the side. In exchange for a hefty commission, N. agreed to look for a buyer for "K19."