Dusk was falling over the foothills of the Ural Mountains as art lovers from Perm, 1,150 kilometers (700 miles) east of Moscow, witnessed a minor sensation. On this evening in May 2005, the state-run art gallery on Komsomolskiy Prospekt presented a series of spectacular Russian avant-garde masterpieces that had unexpectedly re-emerged from the dim recesses of history. Among these works were a composition by El Lissitzky, a "Portrait of a Woman in Blue" by Aristarkh Lentulov and a painting by Kazimir Malevich that had been unknown until then even within the art world.
This extravagant exhibition came from the private collection of a mysterious businessman named Edik Natanov, an art lover who attended the show's opening in a dark suit and black T-shirt, presenting his motivations as altruistic. "I wanted to show people something they had never seen before," Natanov told a television crew, smiling modestly.
Perm's art enthusiasts didn't get to see the jewel of Natanov's collection, though. "K19," an avant-garde effusion of color bearing Wassily Kandinsky's well-preserved signature, was at an auction house in Milan at that moment, where it was up for sale for several million euros.
In this oil painting, dated 1919, respected Moscow art professor Valery Turchin believed he recognized not only Kandinsky's complex visual language, but also the "erratic glow of spiritualized matter." Additionally, Turchin wrote in an exhibition catalogue, the work contained unmistakable religious references to the apocalypse and the Last Judgment.
The secular justice system, however, was not quite so effusive in its praise of the supposed masterpiece. In fact, a Milan criminal court ruled earlier this year that "K19" was nothing but a forgery. Working on behalf of the Italian court, appraisers had determined that the purported Kandinsky could "hardly" have been painted in 1919 and must have originated decades after the artist's death, in 1944. In fact, they found that some of the paint on the canvas was "not even completely dry."
Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), headquartered in Wiesbaden, has taken an interest in the case as well. BKA investigators believe that two of Natanov's long-standing business partners, who sought to sell the purported Kandinsky painting in Italy, are the "marketing directors" of a cartel that, in their view, has flooded the art market with forged works of Russian avant-garde artists. According to the BKA, this group "operates internationally" and has sold at least 400 paintings, each for "four- to seven-figure euro sums" and generally to private collectors. The total profits from such activities -- if the BKA's suspicions prove true -- reach at least into the double-digit millions.
This places the art world at the cusp of a new forgery scandal sure to overshadow all previous ones. In the past, forgers tended to focus primarily on the oeuvre of individual artists. Wolfgang Beltracchi, for example, hoodwinked the art world with works in the style of Max Ernst and Heinrich Campendonk, while a would-be German "count" put several hundred Giacometti forgeries into circulation.
But now an entire epoch -- the Russian avant-garde -- has become suspect. The market is flooded with works from the first decades of the 20th century that are said to have been newly discovered. But few can prove their provenance beyond a doubt.
There are historical reasons for this chaos. After the 1917 October Revolution, Soviet museums acquired avant-garde works en masse. Some painters, including Malevich, even made copies of their own works to meet the production goals of Lenin's massive state. Then, under Joseph Stalin, the only works of art that counted were eye-catching, monumental pieces in the Socialist realist style, while the abstract work of avant-garde artists was denounced as "decadent and bourgeois."
The flourishing trade in Russian avant-garde art didn't take off in a big way until the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the "rediscovered" paintings often had thrilling stories to back them up. Some came from secret government warehouses, one hears, while others were carefully hidden family possessions.
While investigating suspected money laundering, agents of Lahav 433, a new law-enforcement organization known as the "Israeli FBI," stumbled upon this scene more or less by chance. They discovered that some of their suspects were apparently also dealing in art forgeries. When they discovered a gallery in the western German city of Wiesbaden that they suspected of crooked dealings, they brought their counterparts at Germany's BKA into the investigation.
In a covert operation, German and Israeli police monitored telephone conversations and email correspondence while tracing shady cash flows around the globe. In June, the investigators finally struck in a concerted action under the code name "Malefiz" (the name of a German board game, but also an obsolete word for a crime or misdeed). They searched apartments, galleries and offices in both Israel and Germany, froze Swiss bank accounts and confiscated hundreds of works of art.
In a single furniture store in Wiesbaden, BKA agents discovered nearly 1,000 suspicious paintings, drawings and watercolors that were apparently being stored for future sale. The storeroom was not climate controlled and lacked any special security system -- hardly a way to store goods worth millions.
The raid led to the arrest of two art dealers, Itzhak Z., 67, and Moez Ben H., 41, identified in this way due to German privacy laws. According to the files on their case, the two are strongly suspected of "fraudulently selling for profit forged Russian avant-garde works of art presumably produced in Israel and Russia." Among the two suspects' offerings were works from the same "Natanov Collection" that had caused such a stir at the 2005 exhibition in Perm.
A 'Family Inheritance'
That collection, also the source of the supposed Kandinsky painting "K19," was largely unknown to German art experts. Only the small art magazine Artprofil devoted a lengthy article to this "private, museum-quality art collection." According to the article, Edik Natanov hails from a distinguished family from Samarkand, Uzbekistan, that has collected art "for generations."
The grandfather, Mikhail, was supposedly a "well-traveled scholar" who headed a collective farm during the Soviet era, acquiring most of the works in the current art collection in the 1950s. After his death, according to Artprofil, these paintings passed into the hands of his son and then, in 1995, to his grandson Edik.
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.