April 26 2012

Image of Fakeski?

Picture: Mail/Christie's

A Russian Oligarch is suing Christie's this week in the High Court, saying that the above picture he bought for £1.7m is in fact a fake, and not by the famous Russian artist Boris Kustodiev. From the Mail:

The battle to prove the the providence of the painting will last 19 days, and centre around a tiny signature in cyrillic script - said to be that of Kustodiev and dated 1919. Henry Legge QC, for Aurora Fine Arts, through which the painting was purchased, said careful analysis of the signature showed it 'running over' existing cracks in the paint and indicated that it was not written until the late 1940s. Kustodiev died in 1927.

Also highlighting the use of an aluminium-based pigment on the canvas, the QC said it was of a type which was not commonly used by artists until after Kustodiev's death. 'Odalisque' was returned to Christie's after doubts about its authenticity were raised after the sale. The painting was placed on an easel in court for Mr Justice Newey to view.

However, the case began with a dispute over which side should have physical custody of the painting, which Aurora's legal team wants to subject to further tests.

Mr Legge said microscopic, extremely high resolution, photography of the signature could prove conclusively whether it was appended in 1919 or 'considerably later'. [...]

James Aldridge, for Christie's, did not object to fresh photographs being taken, but said cross-sectional testing would be 'unethical' and 'extraordinarily invasive', given the very small size of the signature. Through a detailed comparison between 'Odalisque' and authenticated works by Kustodiev, Christie's insists that the technique, subject matter and other similarities support the attribution to the Russian master. They also say the Aluminium-based pigment identified in the painting was in use by artists in 1919, although not as commonly as in the 1930s.

The High Court hearing - the legal costs of which are likely to equal - if not exceed - the sum paid for the painting seven years ago, continues.

As lawyers say, 'all good things end in litigation'. The case will likely throw up some fascinating questions of how experts assess art, and of course connoisseurship. In fact, the Russian government has already decided the work is a fake, and has published it as such in a list of 900 fake Russian pictures, many of which have been sold in the salerooms in the last few years. One thing to note about this particular case though is that the picture was previously sold by Christie's in 1989, and to me that might argue in its favour as a genuine work. I know there has been a major industry in making Russian fakes to supply the recent boom in modern Russian art - but I don't know the extent to which it started before the collapse of the Soviet regime. 

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