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  • Criminality in the Russian art market has reached alarming levels
    23.04.2006 By John Varoli

    Tretyakov curator speaks out and admits being taken in by forgers

    MOSCOW. Vladimir Petrov, the 19th-century Russian art specialist at the publicly-owned Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, has broken his silence on the subject of faking in the Russian art market.

    In an exclusive interview with The Art Newspaper, Dr Petrov revealed that he is convinced that corruption and criminality in the Russian art market has reached alarming levels. “From May to September 2005, I uncovered 120 fake ‘Russian’ works of art on the market, and it really made me sick,’’ he says. “Information and knowledge are crucial if we are to uncover these types of forgeries.’’

    Dr Petrov first discussed this subject at a private lecture held at the Tretyakov Gallery in November last year. On that occasion, he told his colleagues that inexpensive works by little-known European painters were being reworked in Russia and then fraudulently marketed as Russian paintings at much higher prices.

    He admitted then that he himself has unwittingly authenticated 20 fakes, but says that he has now come to understand the sophisticated methods used by criminals. The admission of error by one of the country’s most respected art experts has shocked the Russian art world.

    Dr Petrov was besieged with questions after the lecture, which he initially refused to answer. He then disappeared for a few months. His silence fuelled rumours that ranged from his alleged suicide or murder, to his being on the run from the law and in hiding somewhere in France where he was said, incorrectly, to own a villa.

    Speaking to The Art Newspaper, Dr Petrov says his aim in speaking out now is to inform the unsuspecting public about the increasing sophistication of the forgers. He is also calling on other experts to come clean and admit past mistakes.

    That last appeal has met with considerable resistance. Careers are at stake and, so far, Dr Petrov stands alone.

    He says that the flow of fakes in and out of the country has become an uncontrollable torrent since the government relaxed regulations on art imports in 2004. Experienced scholars are regularly fooled, he says.

    “Many experts don’t want to admit their mistakes and have their expert decisions scrutinised,’’ he says. “It’s unfortunate that they are hiding the truth, and I think this is an indication of a conspiracy between some dealers and experts.’’

    Dr Petrov has long enjoyed the confidence of buyers and sellers of Russian art, and also works as a consultant to MacDougall’s, the London auction house specialising in Russian art. When top international collectors want to check a work’s authenticity, they often pay for him to come and view works in person, as occurred, for example, in February when a European collector asked him to confirm the authenticity of On the Kama River, a work by Ivan Shishkin worth about $3m.

    Disputes are often settled by violent reprisals in Russia, so Dr Petrov is not taking chances. He is constantly shadowed by a bodyguard, and says he has received death threats; other Moscow scholars have also made similar claims.

    The situation is made dangerous because an authentication by one of these scholars affects the value of works enormously. Validation by Dr Petrov and his colleagues can be the difference between a painting selling for $1,500 or $400,000. For a few thousand dollars, it is easy to hire thugs to “persuade” a scholar to say a work is authentic, says Dr Petrov. Indeed, Dr Petrov says that 15 of the 20 fakes he certified had already been authenticated by other specialists, although he says it is difficult to tell whether this is human error or deliberate deceit.

    “There’s huge money at stake here,’’ he says. “Every work that I intercept is a big loss for the criminals.’’

    By the end of 2004, Dr Petrov had already come across a few of the doctored fakes, but he still had no idea of the scope of the problem. It was only in late 2004 when he installed a high speed internet connection that allowed him to view the websites of European auction houses, that he began to understand the scale of the problem.

    “When I could check the catalogues of these small European auction houses, I started to see they were selling paintings that I had seen here, but with the signature of Russian painters,’’ he said. This prompted him to launch his own investigation.

    The criminals running this trade, he says, are either émigrés from the former USSR or Russian citizens with relations in Europe who act as accomplices, by purchasing and shipping the works of art to Russia. Once the paintings are in the country, they are doctored by talented conservators, who find it hard to earn much by legitimate means.