by Richard Van Herzeele
For the Belgian art world, the first quarter of 2018 has been marked by an unfortunate and prominent scandal involving Russian avant-garde paintings in Ghentâs Museum of Fine Arts (MSK). 26 Privately owned pieces attributed to such Russian Modernist luminaries as Malevich, Kandinsky, Tatlin, Goncharova, were included in a new display of the permanent collection which opened on 20 October 2017. Controversy erupted in January, when a group of Russian Modernism experts and dealers penned an open letter raising serious doubts over the authenticity of the Ghent pieces.
The main characters in this developing drama are Catherine De Zegher, the Director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Igor and Olga Toporovsky, the Russian owners of the pieces, and Sven Gatz, the Flemish Minister of Culture, who initially referred the couple to the museum. The case has rumbled on since the fateful letter and has proven to be fertile ground for art world gossip. However, it also raises some fundamental questions for the international art world beyond Belgiumâs borders.
Much of the commentary on the case has focused on the authenticity of the works. Are they forgeries, as the experts suspect, or instead an extraordinary collection of works made by some of the finest Russian avant-gardists? Sadly, it seems this question will remain unanswered. A recent police search of the Ghent museum placed the pieces still in the museumâs depot, although earlier reports said the pieces had been returned to the owners after being taken down. The Toporovskyâs had already announced their own authenticity investigation, but whether conducting it is still possible, now the depot has been sealed off by the police, and whether its results would be trustworthy in the first place, is anybodyâs guess.
âBut there is another, perhaps more fundamental, question at the heart of this story: was proper due diligence conducted?. The term âdue diligenceâ is often bandied about in the art world, and essentially refers to the investigative steps and procedures one must undertake prior to buying, selling, exhibiting or loaning a work, to ascertain such can be lawfully done. When ascertaining that proper due diligence was conducted, the authenticity of the pieces is of relatively lesser importance. While madam De Zegher would, in laymanâs terms, more easily âget away with itâ, if the pieces were indeed by Malevichâs, Goncharovaâs or Kandinskyâs hand, their authenticity would not necessarily entail that proper due diligence was performed. Poorly vetted art can be authentic, too.
The city of Ghent has now hired Ernst & Young to perform an audit of the museumâs practices to the tune of 44,800 Euros (GBP 39,140.40). The firm will investigate whether the museum has acted in accordance with international guidelines and international reference practices such as the ICOM Code of Ethics. Additionally, relevant staff members of the Ghent Museum of Fine Arts and representatives of several internationally recognised reference museums will be interviewed during the firmâs investigation.