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How forgery turned ?5,000 painting into ?700,000 work of art July 10, 2004

David Leigh in Stockholm and Elena Borissova


Signature of Ivan Shishkin on the painting put up for auction, believed to be a forgery

At first glance the two paintings appear identical. A stream meanders through a tranquil scene framed by billowing clouds and dominated by the twisted branches of an old oak.
But look closer. In the first canvas on the left three tiny figures stand on the path snaking through the wood. There is a girl in a red dress and two men, one leaning on his stick.

Where are they in the second painting? And where, too, is the white lamb that was by the stream? The disappearing act is not the only puzzle. In the second painting a signature has been added. And therein lies a clue to this mystery.

The painting on the left, by an obscure Dutchman, Marinus Koekkoek, was once probably worth little more than ?5,000. But the painting on the right was billed this year as the work of the sought-after 19th century Russian realist, Ivan Shishkin, and put up for auction by Sotheby's with a price tag of ?700,000.

It is, the Guardian has established, the same painting as the one on the left, doctored to disguise and transform it from a cheap picture into an expensive one.

Only at the last minute did Sotheby's withdraw their Shishkin. The story reveals what experts fear is a growing trade in forgeries, thanks to a boom in Russian art.

The National Gallery in Trafalgar Square is staging a major Shishkin exhibition and London sales of Russian masters exceed ?10m year. But behind the scenes there are growing recriminations in the secretive world of Bond Street dealers. One accuses Sotheby's, which dominates the market, of lack of competence - a charge Joanna Vickery, the director of their Russian section, angrily denies.

Another Russian dealer said: "Western auctioneers now have fakes in their catalogues all the time." Leading artists alleged to have been faked include Korovin, Gorbatov and Maliavin. "Russian art has suddenly become so valuable."

Sotheby's got their "Shishkin" from a London collector they will only describe as "a well-known personality". He produced Landscape with Brook, signed and dated 1863, with a certificate of authenticity from the state-run Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

The authentication was arranged by the proprietor of a small Moscow gallery, Borislav Shervinsky, we have established. Mr Shervinsky told us "I was acting for the owner, who bought it in good faith. He is a rich man who has been living in London for 25 years." But Mr Shervinsky too, refused to name him.

The painting was taken up with great excitement despite not looking much like Shishkin's other works.

It became the star item in Sotheby's Russian sale in May - from which they hoped to make more than ?2m in commissions - and was estimated to fetch between ?550,000 and ?700,000.

Sotheby's catalogue boasted: "Landscape with Brook is a rare example of an important piece." They wrote that it "stands in contrast to the freer style of his more mature work".

Admiring Shishkin's "plethora of textures" they quoted a critic describing him as the "delicate and profound chronicler" of the forest. "Looking at Landscape with Brook it is difficult to disagree."

Sotheby's affectation of expertise was impressive. They said Shishkin studied under a Swiss artist in 1863, "solely restricted to the study of cows. The relegation of animal life to the background ... may have been a conscious retaliation against an exercise with which he had become increasingly frustrated".

But the evidence is that the auction house had fallen for a bold fraud. The original by Koekkoek had been purchased months earlier in Stockholm from a Swedish owner. Some details were changed. Shishkin's signature was added, and two sets of human figures removed.

Sotheby's had no doubts at first about the high quality of the painting. Ms Vickery says the signature was checked under ultraviolet light.

But after the catalogue was published, panic grew behind Sotheby's polished Bond Street facade. Ms Vickery says she showed the catalogue while in Moscow to restorers at the Grabar Institute. They had seen this alleged Shishkin before. Its director, Alexei Vladimirov, told us yesterday: "I knew from the first instant it is not him. It is too western-like." He added: "We had three or four cases recently of very expensive Russian paintings bought in the west, which we have turned down."

On the day before the auction, its chief exhibit was withdrawn. The forgery was sent back to the would-be seller and Scotland Yard informed.

Rumours and recriminations have since been swirling through the art world. Some Russian art specialists in London say that a widespread forgery industry exists. They say they dare not be identified because, as one put it "I could be killed".

Others criticise the auctioneers. Matthew Bown, whose rival Izo gallery in Mayfair specialises in socialist realist art, says hopeful attributions are common in the art world and are not confined to Russian painting.

"However, it is startling to see a misattribution estimated at over $1m in a Sotheby's catalogue. Most of the people who buy at Sotheby's Russian auctions are not professionals but collectors who rely implicitly on the accuracy of Sotheby's statements. I have serious doubts about the competence of the head of Sotheby's Russian department."

Joanna Vickery says: "This is a very unfair allegation." She denies that London dealers spotted the fake. "There were conflicting opinions by experts. I went to Moscow and saw the Grabar Institute. And I took the decision to withdraw it from sale. Sotheby's did not sell this painting to anyone."

Ms Vickery insists there is still no evidence she has seen that the Shishkin is a forgery. "The jury is out," she said.

In Stockholm, however, Anna-Karin Pusic, of the auctioneers Bukowskis, confirmed to us that the Sotheby's picture appears to be the one they sold for their Swedish client in May 2003. They were surprised that the anonymous purchaser paid nearly ?35,000 for a painting estimated to be worth around ?5,000.

It was not the first occasion a painting had gone to Russia and re-emerged as a forgery, she said.

A flood of Russian fakes has been appearing across the border in the last three years, according to one of Sweden's most expert restorers, Regina Lundvall. "It is easy," she says. "A fake signature will not show under ultraviolet if it is varnished over. There are many other ways to do it."


The original: the painting by Marinus Koekkoek, where three figures are shown on the path, another heading for the bridge, and a lamb is standing by the stream.


The forgery: in the painting put up for auction as the work of Ivan Shishkin, the figures and the lamb have gone, and a signature has appeared where before there was none.

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