From Russia With Doubt – Missing masterpieces or fantastic forgeries?
From Russia With Doubt: The Quest to Authenticate 181 Would-Be Masterpieces of the Russian Avant-Garde
by Adam Lerner
Princeton Architectural Press
2013, 176 pages, 9.4 x 6.9 x 0.6 inches
$21 Buy a copy on Amazon
A thrilling true story with a mystery that may never be solved: In 2004, two amateur art collector brothers from Denver began buying paintings on eBay from a German dealer who described the art as being produced during the Russian Avant-Garde period (1910-1930). The paintings were being sold for between $600 to a $1200 each. The paintings had all the markings, cracks, and other signs of age expected from paintings of that era. They looked very much like the work of Kazimir Malevich, one of the leaders of the Russian Avant-Garde school.
Acting on a hunch that they’d stumbled onto a treasure, the brothers ended up buying 30 paintings for a total of 40 thousand dollars. They were sure that the paintings were masterpieces. They hired a professional appraiser with 20 years experience, paying her $10,000 to appraise the collection. Her 111-page report concluded with the following statement: “Based on a reasonable degree of appraisal probability, it is in my opinion that the total fair market value of the 30 paintings is $50,101,909.
Of course the story doesn’t end there. Soon, the FBI gets involved to investigate whether or not the paintings were stolen. A noted Malevich expert declares the paintings to be fakes, but his reasons for making that decision are proven to be bogus. Because the paintings have no historical provenance, no one in the art world is willing to declare them authentic. But the question remains — if they are fakes, why would someone go to the considerable trouble of making excellent paintings, spend time aging them so precisely — and then sell them for a pittance on eBay? It makes no sense.
Adam Lerner, the author of the book, is also friends with the brothers (Ron and Roger Pollard). Lerner is also the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, and he decided to exhibit the paintings at the museum. When the exhibition opened, he wrote:
Is there really something here? On the walls of the museum, they looked so much like authentic works of art that their inscrutability became almost painful.
During the exhibition, it became even more clear to me that my ongoing feelings of doubt about the exhibition were part of its higher purpose. I came to understand that these works have a rare power that flows from something unknowable and provoke a sensation of drawing close to something ungraspable. Despite not being authenticated “art,” the paintings in the collection accomplish what art aims for but rarely achieves: the feeling of having come from a world beyond.