Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery Is Target of Smuggling Investigation

Tretyakov State Gallery, Moscow.
Photo: Chelsea Marie Hicks, via Flickr.

Moscow police have questioned employees of the Tretyakov State Gallery in an ongoing investigation into art smuggling, according to several news outlets. The probe arose when a local official was detained at a city airport last week, attempting to leave the country with five paintings valued collectively at $38,000. The man had paperwork falsely claiming that the works were worth just $3,600, according to reports in London’s Guardian and AFP (see Master Forger’s Drawings Spur Bidding Frenzy and 271 Picasso, Warhol, and Miró Fakes Seized In Yet Another Spanish Forgery Ring Bust).

Works by artists including Petr Konchalovsky and Valentin Serov were reportedly among the five paintings seized. A 1921 Konchalovsky still life sold at MacDougall’s Fine Art Auctions, London, for $2.1 million in 2007, an auction record. Serov’s auction high stands at $14.5 million, the price achieved for a 1910 portrait at Christie’s London in November 2014 (see Fear of Chinese Fakes Fuels Market For Old Auction Catalogues and Ai Weiwei’s ‘258 Fakes’ Greets Visitors to Harvard Museum).

Tretyakov staffers are suspected of having appraised the artworks at the low values, according to AFP, which reports that the smuggling charge would carry a maximum sentence of seven years.

The scheme reportedly aimed to spirit the works out of the country to rich collectors including former Russian official Alfred Kokh. Kokh faced charges of embezzlement in 1993 after serving as head of Russia’s privatization agency under Boris Yeltsin, the Wall Street Journal reported. Kokh, a critic of Putin, fled to Germany last year, according to Der Spiegel.

“Ha ha! What nonsense,” Kokh said on Facebook.

“Experts at top art museums in Russia have a lucrative sideline in giving such valuations and some have been accused of legitimising faked paintings as works by Russian masters, which then sell for top prices to collectors from the former Soviet Union,” reports AFP.

The Tretyakov Gallery boasts a collection of 170,000 works, spanning more than a millennium. Founded in 1892, when Russian merchant Pavel Tretyakov donated his collection to the city of Moscow, it includes icons, paintings, and sculptures by such artists as Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, and Vladimir Tatlin.

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