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

In February 2005, Moez Ben H. traveled to Paris. He was executive director of SNZ Galeries at the time and had talked up the fabled Kandinsky work to Andrea N. on an earlier visit. This time, he brought the masterpiece with him, handing it over to the Italian middleman at his apartment on Avenue Emile Zola, on the Left Bank of the Seine.

Andrea N. stored the painting in his wardrobe. His housemate kept an eye on the valuable artwork whenever he was out, N. later told the court, since he was a writer and "only left the apartment to run errands."

Soon it seemed N. had found a way to market the painting. He took "K19" out of the wardrobe, packed it and flew with it to Italy. The supposedly valuable Kandinsky work made the journey in the cargo hold, packed in among the other passengers' suitcases. In Milan, N. met up with a former antiques dealer who ran a small auction house on Corso Garibaldi. The dealer showed "K19" to several prospective buyers over the course of the following months, but no one wanted to buy it.

The gallery owners back in Wiesbaden didn't let that stop them. Having finally finished renovations on their exhibition space on Taunusstrasse, they threw a grand opening party attended by the local smart set on November 7, 2006. Meanwhile, the demand for unknown Russian avant-garde works seemed to be increasingly, and this included paintings from the "Natanov Collection." In April 2007, for example, the "Composition" supposedly painted by Alexandra Exter around 1913 sold at auction in Berlin for a possibly record-breaking €310,000.

Then SNZ Galeries received good news from Milan: A wealthy businessman was willing to pay €3 million for "K19." The painting was delivered to the businessman's office in late 2007 in exchange for collateral in the form of securities ostensibly worth millions of euros.

But disagreements arose over the payment, as it seems both sides of the deal were not above using tricks. While the businessman wanted to pay for the alleged Kandinsky with shares in an American real estate fund, Natanov's business associate Z. wanted to see cash. An intermediary, apparently worried about his commission, filed charges against the buyer, claiming his securities turned out to be useless junk.

In July 2008, when Italian police arrived at the businessman's office to retrieve the painting for the seller, the erstwhile buyer retorted that it was a forgery anyway. In the end, police confiscated the painting -- and launched a criminal investigation of everyone involved.

Things went downhill from there for the Wiesbaden gallery. Former employees say Z. began visiting the local gambling hall more frequently and that Natanov was nowhere to be found. Moez Ben H. resigned as executive director in late 2009 and, a year later, the leaderless company was forced to abandon its premises. H. went on to become a seller of secondhand goods in Wiesbaden.

Unanswered Questions

But the BKA uncovered further shady business dealings. H. and Z. are suspected of having sold at least seven more forgeries of Russian avant-garde art since 2011, for a total of over €2.53 million. Six of these supposed masterpieces -- including three by Natalia Goncharova, one by Malevich and another by Lissitzky -- ended up in Spain. A collector in Germany's Rhineland region paid €450,000 for another painting, this one in the style of Lyubov Popova.

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