How counterfeits can destroy a painter
Article by Nadia NAZAREVSKAYA based on an interview with Andrei Nakov, published in Russian in the weekly KULTURA n° 15 (7678) Moscow 16-22 April 2009, p. 3 (English translation).
The exhibition “ Alexandra Exter and her Friends ” caused a huge scandal in France. All of the artworks presented at the exhibition at the Tours Château were seized. This enormous scandal on the French art market threatens a good part of the Russian avant-garde market and our Russian market. Counterfeits are like viruses on the Internet, but this virus can destroy the international art market. Only a few years ago, we in Russia witnessed a similar scandal. Now, new fakes are coming to us from Europe. Andrei Nakov, well-known art historian specialist in Kazimir Malewicz and Russian avant-garde painters discusses this situation.
Andrei Nakov : I am expressing myself to you in my role as president of the Alexandra Exter Association founded in 2000. As you know, Exter left Russia after the October revolution and died in Paris in 1949 in a state of incredible poverty. Since she had no direct heirs and she understood the risk in the last years of her life of all her works, archives, and gifts from friends simply perishing after her death, she carefully restored all her works, put them in crates and shipped them to New York to Simon Lissim, a long time friend of hers and her family.
I met Simon Lissim in December 1969. In 1981, he drew up a will leaving me Alexandra Exter’s archives along with his own personal archives. They contain documents, letters, photographs, lists of works, etc. These invaluable archives constitute an exceptional key to the artist’s output. However, the works themselves are scattered around the world, which is why an enormous amount of work still remains to be done. Currently Russian avant-garde art and Exter’s works in particular exert a strong appeal on the international art market. It’s important to draw a distinction between the interest of the market and the work of art historians.
The Tours exhibition was oriented towards commercial success. Artworks featured at a prestigious exhibition, accompanied by a catalogue, acquire a certain standing and are highly appreciated.
Jean Chauvelin, the exhibition organizer, counted on this. In 1972, I organized the first Exter exhibition in France at an art gallery owned by Chauvelin. But I haven’t been in contact with him for more than thirty years. He works regularly with Hôtel Drouot, where he is taken for an expert in Russian art.
The first thing that intrigued me about the Exter exhibition was that it was organized in Tours, a city that is not regarded as a centre of art. The exhibition was held in an old city-owned château. Two floors were devoted to Exter’s works, 180 in all; the third floor exhibited 80 works by painter friends.
I was horrified as soon as I stepped into the rooms. One look and it was clear there was good reason for doubts. In these bright, flashy paintings of all colours, Exter’s manner was simply missing. There was none of the painter’s powerful energy in them. The sketches for theatrical costumes were done in oil, which is totally out of character for this genre. Exter herself did such sketches in gouache or watercolour. Anyone familiar with Exter’s artistic biography could readily see works there in previously nonexistent categories. Exter made sketches for the costumes in Protozanov’s film Aelita, and there at the Tours exhibition were sketches for set designs, when everyone knows that these were done by another artist. The different stages in her career were mixed up, as were the signatures. Exter signed her works differently at different points in her life. Some signatures were in Cyrillic but the writing of the letters was incorrect: the person who signed these paintings obviously did not know how to write in Russian.
The scope of the enterprise was by no means modest. The painter friends section featured six works by Malewicz, about ten by Larionov, Kandinsky, Lissitzky – nearly the whole range of the Russian avant-garde. Every new work by Malevicz creates a sensation, particularly for researchers and there, all of a sudden, we had six of them ! It was a real shock to me. In my opinion, only one of the works by “ friends ” was genuine : a drawing by Alexander Rodchenko. Fakes cause as much damage to a painter body of work as AIDS to the body of an individual.
To counter the destruction of Exter’s artistic heritage, I had to engage in an extremely difficult task. I spent two days in Tours, studying the exhibition in detail. I held each work in my hands and examined the reverse side where traces of efforts to age the canvas were immediately apparent. I wasted two months of my life trying to rescue the Russian avant-garde market from collapse – only recently eight pieces of the same type appeared at a Hôtel Drouot auction.
As president of the Alexandra Exter Association, I turned to the public prosecutor. The court admitted our complaint. Lawyers had to be found and handwriting experts sent to study the signatures on the paintings. It became clear that certain signatures were stenciled. A special section of the French police – specialised in the fraud of works of art- was put in charge of the investigation. On 25 March, the AFP put out an official press release from office of the Public Prosecutor announcing the confiscation of the artworks at the exhibition. The exhibition catalogue was also seized. This catalogue contained, for example, made up stories about the appearance in France of the works in question. Exter supposedly arrived in France with crates full of works! In the artist’s documents, for which I’m responsible, there isn’t the slightest mention of these fictive crates. The catalogue also features a photograph purportedly of Exter with one of these works in the background. It is in fact a picture of one of her students. One cannot help but note that the exhibition organizers did not even know what Exter looked like. Jean Chauvelin also invented new biographical facts. This was already the case in the voluminous book devoted to Exter that he and an associate published in 2003. This is how myths are created for art buyers who are not particularly fussy.
The prosecutor took an interest in the Tours exhibition affair because large sums of money were involved in the project.
Nadia Nazarevskaya : Will Jean Chauvelin be prosecuted ?
Andrei Nakov : That’s up to the courts. The French authorities promise to clarify the affair in the near future.
Interview by Nadia Nazarevskaya.