“From Russia With Doubt” (Russian Avantgarde) – Review


  German original LINK: 13. August 2015 | dvg     Translation: 13. November 2020


A friend has been collecting images of the Russian avant-garde and has been fighting for their recognition over years, which means the quest to authenticate would be masterpieces. That is the subtitle of an American museum publication (on the exhibition at MCA Denver 2010) that also could come to his aid as it happened to the two collectors Ron and Roger:

Adam Lerner: From Russia with Doubt, Princeton Architectural Press, NY , ISBN 978-1-61689, Denver 2010


Since I had been suffering with him for years from the rejection he experienced by institutions and auctioneers, he gave me a copy. During summer holidays I devoured literally the exciting story of the collectors, who – despite the museum director’s commitment – by no means had a happy ending. I would now evaluate the result with the slogan The path is the goal or a quote from Paul Watzlawik’s client at the end of her therapy: My mother has not changed, but I see her differently now.

In fact, at the end of the book, the reader sees some things differently: the art business, the gray market in which smugglers and forgers are at work, authorities, expert opinions, the fate of the Russian avant-garde and their art to this day, and last but not least collectors with their motifs, collecting styles and dreams. As a collector of ‘Tribal Art’, I too know the quest to authenticate well enough.

The portrait of the book will necessarily remain sketchy. I try to mark the punch lines. If you want to buy the book – for a little over 20 € – short quotations (original or in translation) are indicated in italics and their page number is noted.



The adventure began in 2004 as a modern everyday story with eBay auctions. Of course, Ron and Roger soon suspected they might have stumbled upon a treasure trove. (21) They found first aid in the assessment of a local curator that the auctioned picture was material from that time (22). In addition, They met an eyewitness who, during a visit to Leningrad during the Cold War, had seen in the Eremitage hundreds of unprotected and uncatalogued avant-garde images stacked on top of one another.

In my opinion, the speculation trap has snapped on Ron and Roger when they wanted to intensify the purchase and invited friends to bid. This was not so easy. eBay functions as an anonymous platform that inconspicuously allows the provider to manipulate the offer and test the achievable price. (26)

Then Ron and Roger hired a local art assessor for $ 10,000, with the desired success, of course on the basis of known auction results and under the tacit condition that the two dozen pictures were recognized originals. (29). They went to the bank vault.



Lerner conveys the drama of the ideological conflict between Tatlin and Malevich (30-32) at the time, and finds: They made easy caricatures for the two sides of a conflict (36). Because the field of tension was much more complex and offered space for the inclinations of different collectors. With Ron and Roger, the intricate coincidences of availability played the biggest role, driven by breathtaking auction results for ‘real’ Malevichs.

Initially, all Russian revolutionary artists experimented with non-objective shapes, but then – with varying degrees of vigor – they tried to make their art useful, to find a new visual vocabulary for the communist society (36) – work on design, or even more on the icon, symbol, Symbol of the Future. For me the details are extremely interesting: Malevich’s vacillations between simplified objects (such as propellers, 37) and the manifestation of the non-objective world, even theatrical (Vitebsk 1919, 37,38). Malevich as a typical secterian leader of the time with his white gown and anthem. Lerner describes him as a successful promoter in a quasi-political role. (38) In 1927 he was allowed to travel and exhibit in Berlin. He left all exhibited pictures there. The political climate had shifted against the avant-garde. Temporarily imprisoned, attacked for formalism (41) Malevich died in 1935 at the age of 57. Western ‘rescue efforts’ followed for the pictures left in Germany, and their subsequent distribution in the Western art establishment, and much later, from 1993 onwards, arose a restitution dispute. (42)



The future of the Ron and Roger collection depends on unsympathetic, even negative institutions. All estimates are based on authenticity. But how can you prove it? (43) At a conspiratorial meeting in 2008 at the Gare du Nord in Paris, one of the sellers, the alleged ’collector’, knew surprisingly little about the avant-garde. (45) Amateur traders? Network of antique dealers? The sellers require the money to be paid to different bank accounts. (44) They serve up an overly cinematic legend of a ship that was detained in the port of Hamburg in the 80s and of officially opened containers, the contents of which were auctioned by Customs. This means that all possibilities to trace the origin seem closed.

The hypothetical but plausible classification as the work of students and others imitating his (Malevich) style in their own works – a practice that he encouraged – (47) suggests itself. (Fig. 40-46). Having the mentality of a collector of antiques, rather than art, the value to Ron would change greatly by such an explanation. He thinks of authenticity primarily in relation to a particular time period, not a particular person. (47) They would still be the products of an exciting moment in art history and authentic works of the Russian avantgarde. Unfortunately, even these basic information could not be known for certain. (47)

For ‘Tribal Art’, such permanent uncertainty would be normality: Local styles or the traces of individual artists are exceptions, based either on individual observations or always controversial conclusions from material studies.

Ron and Roger learnt a lot in the many detours. They try all sorts of pragmatic assessment procedures. Including the application of simple logic! For example: Why should a talented subtle counterfeiter …. not simply forge the artist’s signature? (52) Ron and Roger are now primarily looking to get information from the works themselves! For a handwritten line of text, they hire an experienced forensic graphologist with no financial interest in the result. That line of text should be more meaningful than a regular signature! (51) Other initiatives are: color analysis (titanium white 53f.), Light box / X-Ray photography (55). And they keep buying. New worries arise in the event of authenticity: acquisition under suspicious circumstances! Heritage Site? The involvement of the FBI under Offshore Asset Protection (53) does not bring any result, unfortunately! (55)

Adam Lerner discusses the problems of the high-dollar modern art world (55) and the role of a recognized authority. (56) Here the approval of elite figures is decisive, with the consequence for Ron and Roger to make connections mediated by a friend. Informal interviews (59) take place without naming names. The result is either: ‘stolen, if not fake‘ or the widespread, although unproven explanation for the many avant-garde falsifications in the West: They came to the West as international currency of jewish emigrants from Leningrad in the 1970s? (60) At that time they were not allowed to export foreign currency from the USSR and relied on ‘art’.



Now the minefield opens up around the authentic images. But they are the reference for the would be authentic – I catch myself looking for orientation based on the status of their whereabouts.

There is a dispute among experts in the West, based on the total neglect of avant-garde art in Russia over sixty years (52-53). In addition, there are obscure entanglements of interests (63-65). Inevitably a radical crisis of authority is developing 65). The experts Nakov, Chauvelin and Railing do not submit articles to peer-reviewed journals or publish books with academic presses (65), or at least with the obligations of museum curators! (61-66) The biography of one of them, Nakov, formulated by himself, is probably just a legend. (75)



Adam Lerner could fall between the chairs. He must fear the professional reputation damage. But in any case, the coup will bring him attention, using unidentified and unauthenticated images on which there is a spell, to represent a famous art movement and also to publicly address the conditions of authentication itself! The curator Lerner gets dizzy. His courageous act makes him wonder what ‘art’ actually is. (72; 67-73)



The merchant’s only substantive email piles up bogus to reassure the customers Ron and Roger. He hides behind the confusion of the Russian avant-garde market. Then the minute-by-minute billing by an hourly agent is exciting to read. The three comparative image analyzes carried out in Lerner’s catalog (which appeared after exhibition) only arouse new questions. For example, the anachronistic postage stamp on a collage or the USARMY stamp on a stretcher can even be taken as proof of the audacity of creative counterfeitors.

And what is it all about? The stylistic development of Malevich – not really exciting – or the relationship between litho composition and oil painting or of teacher and student? sn’t this material more suitable for doctoral students and curators of an institution than for collectors – apart from not so many ingenious pictures?



An interview, published On the evening of the presentation of the catalog at MCA Denver November 2013 – two years after the successful exhibition – in www.westword:

Has Adam Lerner already had a few drinks? Or is he just trying to meet the audience’s expectations of a crowd’s favorite? His very personal, unusual decision is once again in the center of interest. Two powers fought within him, he says: something frightening, potentially career-shattering, fears of basically violating the rules of my field on the one hand, but on the other something powerful and mysterious, that comes from some place that ist from beyond – something that feels completely different from everything else in our lives. Or in other words: These works got under my skin. We know that from the poetry of Frank Sinatra!

Not enough that ’art’ gets to the level of ’children need fairy tales’ or ’children need pictures’, Lerner inflates his enthusiasm with every new sentence. He raves: That period in art – the Russian avant-garde – is just so exciting. He spontaneously imagines an ideal dinner party: to sit around a table with a bunch of people who love Russian Avant Garde and we can just talk all night about how much we love it. There is someting about that period that is really exciting to me. It is also a very mysterious period, because all of these artists died young and there is not that many works that exist or are easy to see.

This is the moment where smalltalk becomes silly. How does he actually manage to ignore the brutal and tragic background of art under Lenin and Stalin? The revolution is not a gala dinner, Mao Zedong used to say. The Bolshevik leaders thought and acted this way. I know a similar ignorance from my student days, when young leftists in Germany – hooked by attractive new publications – discovered the buried Soviet art avant-garde for themselves, but that is almost fifty years ago.

All those involved are just a little crazy, Lerner adds, but by that he only means dealing with the crazy stories and almost fairytale narratives of this dubious milieu. Dinner party? From Russia with Drinks? Yes, that’s a trendy offer in the museum of the conformist consumer society!

What Lerner calls in the catalog Merits of Half-Believing becomes abundantly clear at the end of the interview: The whole point of the book is that I wanted to leave it an mystery and in fact I never made a serious quest to discover the origins of these works. I was interested in the quest by the collectors and their obsession with it. But I decided for me that for me it really wasn’t about trying to find out whether these words (! works) were real or if they were fake. I wanted to keep alive that sense of mystery. After outlining the consequences of a hypothetical verification, he concludes: All of a sudden they would become objects like any other object. But if you leave it a mystery, it becomes something special.

Objects like any other object? With the authenticity stamp are all further questions to the work superfluous? Above all, Lerner catapults himself elegantly out of the uncomfortable position of a curator who has fooled his collectors. He got his story through his brisk coup. The on who…. But on the other side he also made them prominent according to the motto: ’Promote or die’


August 14, 2015:

THE ELENA BASNER CASE’ (November 2015)

My friend appreciates my review and sends information from the Russian side on the problem. I read The Elena Basner Case ( blockierter LINK). A few impressions:

  1. Shocking! But that’s always the case if you can’t visualize the specific situation that prevails behind the label ‘Russia’. You just play it down. I am doing a lot about my rose-colored glasses.
  2. Exciting! A model case of intrigue. I don’t watch crime novels and political thrillers.
  3. At the same time, I am aware of the long way the collector’s item has to go to collectors. ‘Anything can happen’ and that is perhaps the most interesting thing about the artwork!
  4. Art and commerce: In the words of a Russian avantgarde painter (+1939) and the alleged victim of a wide-ranging post-Soviet intrigue:

In a letter to his wife, Boris Grigoriev (2020 blockierter Link)! once spoke of the commercialization of the art world: “Now is the age of commerce, and we have such a wonderful product.” Elena Basner touched on the same subject at the end of an interview given in court on 5 February 2014: “This world, where an object of art becomes an object of commerce, is repulsive. And one has to be very careful. Let this be an example.© RusArtNet, 2015

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