Russian Avant-Garde Art Police Break Up Suspected Forgery Ring
Part 2: Fake It Till You Make It
By this point, the trade in Russian avant-garde art was in full swing. By March 2002, a piece from the "Natanov Collection" found its way to an auction house in Frankfurt. This constructivist portrait, titled "The Writer" and supposedly painted by Nadezhda Udaltsova between 1915 and 1920, was valued at 100,000 ($130,000). But then, the auctioneer recalls, he received a call telling him the painting was a fake. To be on the safe side, he pulled it from the auction.
Business got better as time went on. In 2004, the Triton Foundation, an art foundation established by a wealthy Dutch couple that had made its fortune in shipping, purchased a "Natanov" piece, "Dynamic Composition" by Alexandra Exter. Several hundred thousand euros are believed to have changed hands.
According to a Russian exhibition catalogue published in 2003, at that time, Natanov's collection included at least 18 Russian avant-garde pieces, including two Malevich works, two Jawlenskys and the supposed Kandinsky composition "K19."
It was with this last painting that Itzhak Z., Natanov's fellow gallery owner, evidently hoped to make millions. Original Kandinskys come onto the market only rarely -- and they fetch top prices.
The hurdles that must be cleared to make such a sale, however, are high. Any piece that hasn't received approval from the Paris-based Société Kandinsky is more or less impossible to sell on the established art market. The society, founded by Kandinsky's widow, Nina, keeps close watch over the artist's body of work, and auction houses only accept pieces listed in the society's catalogue.
"K19" didn't have that stamp of approval. So, to sell the painting, Natanov's business partners needed a broker who could connect them with the gray market.
Business Ups and Downs
One such man was an Italian named Andrea N. At the time, N. was working for a gallery in Paris that bought and sold works by Modigliani and Picasso, but he was not averse to doing a little business on the side. In exchange for a hefty commission, N. agreed to look for a buyer for "K19."
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.
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.
Proving whether these and other recovered paintings are indeed forgeries will require the BKA to conduct extensive investigations -- and a separate one for each individual work. The only piece so far proven to be a fake is the purported Kandinsky.
Investigators still need to determine where the fakes were made and how many people painted them. At least some of the paintings, investigators believe, may have been produced by a 53-year-old painter in St. Petersburg, who was caught in the act of forging three paintings simultaneously in Tel Aviv on January 13.
Natanov, meanwhile, has publicly and repeatedly stressed that he had his artworks extensively appraised for authenticity, although he claimed to trust "only experts from Russia."
Was the collector deceived by his business associates? Or did he know about their activities and decide to offer up his family history to lend a credible legend to their forgeries? German investigators have not charged Natanov with any crime. He claims he no longer has anything to do with this business and that he parted ways with business partner Z. years ago because they supposedly "didn't get along."
Natanov says he "simply left" the supposed Kandinsky, which had "been in the family for years," with Z., and that he "didn't received any money for it, nor did I ask for any." He also says that's just the kind of person he is. He still has his art collection, but he declines to reveal how many pieces are in it.
Defense lawyers for Itzhak Z. and Moez Ben H. likewise declined to comment on the accusations. Both men were tried in Italy, where on February 19, 2013, the third chamber of Milan's criminal court sentenced them to suspended sentences of one year each for their involvement in the sale of the forged Kandinsky. The verdicts, however, are not yet legally binding.
As for "K19," the painting is now stored alongside confiscated antiques in a slightly dilapidated side room of a former imperial residence in Monza, a city just north of Milan. The residence serves as an evidence storage facility for the Carabinieri, Italy's paramilitary police force.
Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein
- Part 1: Police Break Up Suspected Forgery Ring
- Part 2: Fake It Till You Make It