Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Someone Is Faking the Great Paintings

Valery Uszhin, a wealthy car dealer, wanted an art collection. "About two years ago, I felt that I had money," he said. "I decided to buy paintings, Russian art."

Uszhin began to collect at quite a clip, a new canvas every couple of weeks. Then in March of last year he paid a St. Petersburg art dealer $145,000 for a painting listed as "Summer Day," by Alexander Kiselyov, a 19th-century master of Russian landscapes. By the time he hung it in his Moscow apartment, the walls were covered with a seemingly sterling collection -- 30 pieces of 19th-century art bought for a total of close to $5 million.

But within months there was a sobering development: Art experts using scientific analysis determined that the work that Uszhin thought was "Summer Day" was in fact a heavily altered 1883 painting by the Danish artist Janus la Cour, "A Forest Road Leading to a Peasant's House." The investigators established that 14 months before Uszhin bought it, someone else had paid $2,000 for it at an auction in Copenhagen.

The revamped la Cour, now stored in a police basement, is at the center of one of the most lucrative and technically sophisticated international art scams to surface in recent years.

Fueled by the country's burgeoning wealth and the desire for prestigious assets with patriotic cachet, Russia's upper class has driven the market for Russian art to unprecedented heights. The frenzy has also attracted some very skilled and knowledgeable crooks.

Vladimir Petrov, a curator at the state-run Tretyakov Gallery, says he believes forgers have snapped up at least 120 paintings by minor 19th-century West European landscape artists at auction houses in Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Finland and the Netherlands, paying $1,000 to $20,000 apiece for them. After retouching, the works have been resold here for between $125,000 and $1 million as the work of major Russian artists of the same period.

"Pieces that had a lot in common with Russian painters were chosen," said Petrov, who acknowledges having validated 20 fakes before his suspicions were aroused by the sheer volume of previously unrecorded art flooding into the marketplace over the last three years. "It seems like there are several groups with highly skilled professionals working on this. They were experts in Russian art. They added a few Russian details or removed a few Western details, or sometimes just changed the signature. They were so close in everything. Remarkable."

The la Cour painting, for instance, depicts a stand of trees along a dirt road. Thick undergrowth dotted with blue flowers and dandelions extends from the trees to the edge of the road. In the near distance, beneath a cloudy sky, is a single-story farmhouse.

When it reached Uszhin, much of the original painting remained identifiable. But to Russify the scene, the trees had been made leafier. The farmhouse was wiped out, disappearing behind new foliage and new sky.

The road was shortened and narrowed. In the foreground, a tiny pool of water was added and some Russian-style houses appeared in the distance. Kiselyov's signature was forged in the lower left-hand corner.

"We certainly consider Janus la Cour to be part of Danish culture, and as such it is deeply problematic that somebody destroys his paintings -- regardless of the modest price in this incident," said Sebastian Hauge Lerche, the director of Bruun Rasmussen Auctioneers in Copenhagen, which sold the la Cour.

In this way, forgers have also come up with supposed works by other sought-after artists such as Ivan Shishkin, Vasily Polenov, Feodor Vasiliyev and Vladimir Orlovsky. Half of Uszhin's collection proved to be the work of little-known West Europeans.

Using auction catalogues, Petrov, an expert on 19th-century Russian art, has compiled a binder of before and after images of paintings as they were sold in Western Europe and what they became in Moscow. The stooped 56-year-old is investigating another 100 suspicious paintings sold in Russia but has not yet identified what he believes to be the Western originals.

Moscow boasted a thriving art scene in the 19th century. Many of the artists' patrons were merchants seeking representations of an idealized Russia, like many buyers, both here and abroad, in today's boom market.

Major auction houses such as Christie's and Sotheby's are seeing turnover as their London sales double from one year to the next. Between them, they sold about $60 million worth of Russian art in 2005, with much of it returning to Russia. Prices for work by artists such as Kiselyov have increased 40-fold in the last 10 years, according to dealers.

"New Russians want to collect Russian art and are willing to spend big money," said Igor Tarnogradsky, a Moscow art dealer and collector.

The scam has been facilitated by the fact that it is common in Russia for previously unknown but genuine works to suddenly appear on the market. Because of the upheavals of the Russian Revolution and World War II, many paintings were hidden away for generations, taken into exile or confiscated by government authorities, according to dealers.

Oleg Tairov, who owns a gallery at the Central House of Artists, said he purchased a trove of 19th-century Russian art from a former KGB colonel and can only imagine how it was acquired. "Property was redistributed and things were stolen from private collections," said Tairov, who is on the board of the International Confederation of Antique and Art Dealers. "The main problem in the Russian market is provenance."

Uszhin's first purchase, for $150,000 in early 2004, was represented to him as a work by Orlovsky titled "Lily-Pond."

Uszhin bought the painting from Tatyana and Igor Preobrazhensky, a couple who owned a gallery in St. Petersburg, with offices in Moscow. "She came to my house to put the first painting on the wall, and I said, 'You will get me a collection,'" Uszhin said in an interview at a Hyundai dealership in Moscow.

Uszhin did not buy without expert advice. An appraisal by one of Moscow's leading art institutions, the Grabar All-Russian Artistic Scientific Restoration Center, confirmed "Lily-Pond" and other paintings he acquired as genuine.

Last spring, Uszhin said, one of his friends, an art buff who was particularly suspicious of the number of Kiselyovs he had managed to buy, suggested he get a second opinion on their authorship. Experts at the Tretyakov raised serious doubts about five paintings he brought in. A subsequent barrage of tests at the private institute Art Consulting revealed that the signatures were false and some of the paintings had been changed. Among the fakes Uszhin had bought was that first acquisition, "Lily-Pond."

The Preobrazhenskys were arrested in October and remain in a pretrial detention center. The couple, the only people arrested in connection with this kind of faking, have denied that they knowingly sold altered art. Police declined comment. Because of the scam's complexity and the scale of the profits generated, Petrov believes multiple players were involved. He said the scam was certainly not confined to a couple of dealers like the Preobrazhenskys, who may well, like him, have been taken in by the quality of the fakes.

Indeed, in May 2004 Sotheby's was nearly fooled by a fraudulent Russian painting, withdrawing from auction at the last minute a work that had been attributed to Shishkin and valued at $1,250,000. Called "Landscape with Brook," it had come with a certificate from the Tretyakov Gallery confirming it as a genuine Shishkin. Before the auction, a Sotheby's commentary contrasted the painting "to the freer style of [Shishkin's] more mature work."

In fact, the painting was by the 19th-century Dutch painter Marinus Koekkoek and had sold a year earlier in Stockholm for $62,000. By the time it reached London, features that would have identified it as Western, including four human figures, had been removed.

According to Petrov, the forgers frequent European auction houses looking for paintings created at about the same time and in the same style as the work of sought-after Russian artists. The forgers often re-wet the paint to make additions and adjustments, including signatures. Adults and cows have been taken out. Children and geese have been put in. The forgers revarnish the work and sometimes add what is known in the trade as craquelure, hairline surface cracking that indicates aging.

A standard examination, including a visual assessment of style and an ultraviolet examination of elements such as the signature, would often miss deceptions. Moreover, the canvas and much, if not all, of the paint is genuinely 19th-century.

Most of the people who bought fake art have not come forward. "They are very rich and prominent people and they don't want the publicity," said the dealer Tarnogradsky, who has a client who is trying to get another dealer to refund the price of a forgery he bought.

At Tarnogradsky's shop, Petrov stood by as two assistants hauled up a large, framed canvas from his basement. A client had bought it as a Polenov for $450,000 when in fact it was painted by the German artist Max Roman and sold in Vienna for $8,500. In 2003, Petrov certified it as an original.

An inconvenient Roman aqueduct in the original has been painted over, but otherwise the landscape passed for central or northern Russia. The fraud was discovered when the Moscow owner tried to sell the painting last year, and a more thorough appraisal found it was a fake. "My client told me to throw it away," Tarnogradsky said, "but I kept it as an example."