An exhibition of 192 Russian avant-garde paintings was shut down abruptly in March, three days before its scheduled closing, when a well-known art expert claimed that 190 of the works were fake. The exhibition, in the Château Museum in Tours, France, was devoted to Aleksandra Ekster, a major figure of the avant-garde. A native of Ukraine, Ekster (or Exter) settled in France in 1924 and lived there until her death, in 1949.
The whistle-blower was Andrei Nakov, who was himself at the center of a scandal in the 1980s, when he was accused of certifying more than 1,000 questionable pastels and drawings by another Russian avant-garde luminary, Mikhail Larionov. (Nakov sued the Geneva Tribune for its coverage of a traveling exhibition he organized of works attributed to Larionov and won the case when the court found that he did not knowingly promote fakes.)
The organizer of the Ekster show—and the owner of 130 of the paintings—was another well-known expert, the Paris dealer Jean Chauvelin. He told the French press he had bought the paintings in Russia 30 years ago. Chauvelin was not able to furnish the authorities with authentication certificates for the works, but there was no need for them, he said, because “l’expert, c’est moi.”
Nevertheless, the Office Central de lutte contre le trafic des Biens Culturels—the Central Office for Combatting Traffic in Cultural Goods—seized the paintings, which remain in police custody. A police spokesperson said that an investigation was in progress.
This wasn’t the first time a museum found itself embarrassed by allegedly fake Russian avant-garde pictures. Last year the Bunkamura Museum of Art in Tokyo removed five works attributed to Chagall, Kandinsky, and Ivan Puni from an exhibition lent by the Moscow Museum of Modern Art, although the Moscow museum insisted they were genuine.
A six-month ARTnews investigation and interviews with scholars, dealers, and other sources in the United States, Russia, Germany, France, and Spain reveals that the number of Russian avant-garde fakes on the market is so high that they far outnumber the authentic works. “There are more fakes than genuine pictures,” said Alla Rosenfeld, curator of the Norton Dodge Collection of Soviet Nonconformist Art at Rutgers University from 1992 to 2006 and former vice president of the Russian art department at Sotheby’s New York. It’s impossible to put a number on them, said Natalia Kournikova of Kournikova Gallery in Moscow, but “we can say that almost every artist whose prices have risen has become the victim of fake makers.”