French Police Seize $100 Million Worth of Russian Avant-Garde Paintings

Half of the works were bought from disgraced dealer Itzhak Zarug who has since been found guilty of falsifying provenance.

Another painting by Wassily Kandinsky, Winter Landscape (1909). Found in the collection of the State Hermitage, St Petersburg. Photo: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images.

Over 100 pieces of Russian avant-garde art were seized in Paris by French authorities on suspicion that they were stolen. A private collector has alleged that they were part of a trove of some 1,800 artworks—including works by Kazimir Malevich, Wassily Kandinsky, and Natalia Goncharova—that were stolen from a storage facility in Germany in late 2019.

The valuable paintings were reported stolen by Uthman Khatib, a Palestinian businessman based in Israel. His son Prince Castro Ben Leon Khatib is leading the mission to recover the items, some of which he claims have already been sold at auctions in Israel, Monaco, and France. The family claimed that the auction houses each ignored cease-and-desist letters informing them that the works in question were likely stolen.

“We will follow the perpetrators around the world,” said a spokesperson for the Khatib family in a press statement. “We will continue to recover our property and encourage anyone who is considering buying Russian avant-garde works to diligently check its provenance and make sure it is not a stolen piece belonging to our family.”

The raid in Paris, carried out by French bailiffs and police in January, follows the seizure of hundreds more paintings in Frankfurt, Germany last year. The Khatib’s multi-year legal battle is being led by Dentons law firm and financially supported by the Prague-based litigation fund LitFin.

The Dentons lawyer said that “several hundred” artworks have been recovered so far, according to The Art Newspaper, which first reported the news. The lawyer added that the seized works were estimated to be worth more than €100 million ($108 million).

However, the market for Russian avant-garde art is particularly notorious for being flooded with forgeries. In 2018, the Israeli dealer Itzhak Zarug based in Wiesbaden, Germany, was originally suspected of running a forgery ring and eventually found guilty of falsifying provenance documents.

According to the report in TAN, Khatib bought about half of his collection from Zarug in 2015. At this time, the works in question had already been seized on suspicion of being forgeries by the Wiesbaden public prosecutor’s office. They were stolen shortly after they were returned to Zarug and Khatib in 2019.

Khatib’s son claims to know the identity of the thief, with whom he attempted to negotiate before deciding to involve the courts in 2022.

In 2020, a pair of collectors were arrested for allegedly lending two dozen fakes to a 2017 exhibition about Russian Modernism at the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent. As a growing number of institutional shows were blighted by the problem of forgeries, the Museum Ludwig in Cologne held an exhibition that interrogated the authenticity of works from its own collection in 2020.

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