The new Wild West for forgers: Russian avant-garde art

July 23, 2009 § Leave a comment

The flood of fake paintings into the Russian avant-garde art market has been so overwhelming that some experts believe forgers have filled the marketplace with more sham canvases than authentic works. Often lacking a central authority to verify originals, the current conditions in that segment of the art world make Camus’ epigram about art being the product of a guilty conscience seem all the more appropriate. There was something else in his statement about ‘a guilty conscience need[ing] to confess’ as well, but anyone who expects a willing forger to emerge from the ethical wasteland of counterfeiting will be stuck sitting around waiting for the paint to dry.

When a piece of sham art is made with a level of craftsmanship so fine that it confuses those who have dedicated their lives to the genre, it is an impressive event. But in the grand scheme of things, the sweat and talent required to produce these faux pieces is wasted. In the end, it’s about as valuable as the spent paint tubes cluttering the corners of ateliers – they are symbols of what might have been, of wasted potential.

It’s really a sham shame.

A lengthy and exhaustively reported investigative piece in ARTnews provides a fantastic inventory of the current market for Russian avant-garde art – work produced during the late 19th century until the early 20th. And the findings are not encouraging.

“There are more fakes than genuine pictures,” said Alla Rosenfeld, curator of the Norton Dodge Collection of Soviet Noncomformist Art at Rutgers.

It’s a rare environment where, in certain cases, fakes can overtake their authentic progenitors. The combination of the forger’s impressive ability, the absence of most if any of the artists from the period to verify their own work, the sparseness of official documentation, and the universal suspicion of dealers and authorities for one another, makes it a target rich environment for the sham artists.

The authentication societies, even those centralized around certain artists, such as the Kandinsky Society based in Paris, are not without their own set of complaints from some who feel that their “assumption of absolute expertise” is unwarranted and they often exclude legitimate paintings from the canon as well. According to the article, in the case of a painting submitted for review by the Kandinsky Society, Jean Chauvelin, a Paris-based art dealer said that “if you don’t have a photograph of the painting in Kandinsky’s hands, it’s the end.”

This problem is an unfortunate byproduct of counterfeiting: the fakes cannibalize the very legitimacy they crave. By making it impossible for authentic paintings to receive accreditation, the very market they hope to take advantage of shrinks. It’s a bizarre set of circumstances at best, but it reaffirms one thing: the absolutely corrosive nature of fake goods.

Still, we’re more aware than before. We have more material to bring to the discussion. The frustration experienced by those interviewed for the article suggests that something is on the verge of happening to avoid falling into the counterfeit trap. Let’s hope these talks happen sooner than later.

A final quote from Camus: “Abstract art is a product of the untalented, sold by the unprincipled to the utterly bewildered.” We disagree with the first two entirely, for we don’t base the rule on exceptions, but more significantly, though the third can be true in certain cases, as often as it might be right, the good news is that it’s always avoidable.

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