Why this story matters:
Belgium was tricked by Russian con artists: an investigation by De Standaard found that Igor and Olga Toporovski, who lent the collection to the Ghent museum, are unlikely to own authentic paintings.
The inquiry also revealed several oversights by the museum staff. They claimed to possess "evidence of authenticity", but investigative journalists suspect the documents may be fraudulent as well.
This is a story of institutional failure, not only in terms of expertise but also in terms of work ethics.
The Belgian art scene has long enjoyed an excellent reputation and flawless credibility. It will now bear a stain from this embarassing fiasco.
Details from the story:
- In January, De Standaard reported on the growing doubts over the authenticity of a number of works on loan to the Ghent Fine Arts Museum (MSK).
- Their owner, Russian businessman Igor Toporovski and his wife Olga have expressed the desire to establish a new museum in Brussels.
- The works were attributed to famous 20th century avant-garde artists: Malevich, Tatlin, Goncharova and Kandinsky.
- After Flemish and Russian experts expressed concerns regarding potential counterfeiting, the museum was forced to close the exhibition.
- MSK staff stressed that they followed all procedures when accepting the loan.
- Art Newspaper revealed that Igor Toporovski had previously been questioned by Russian police about a fraud case, twelve years ago.
- The Toporovskis deny all charges against them. According to Olga Toporovski, the collection comes from her great-grandfather, who was related to the Pevsners -- a well-known family of art historians and collectors. When asked, the Pevsners deny any ties to the Toporovskis.
- The Culture Minister, Sven Gatz, ordered a committee of experts to test the paintings' origins. What he failed to mention was that he had been in contact with the Toporovskis before the scandal.
- The director of the museum, Catherine de Zegher, and officials at the City of Ghent remained silent. For seven weeks, they refused to answer messages and calls from De Standaard. The publication of an open letter signed by all Flemish museums finally provoked a reaction.
- When Catherine de Zegher spoke out for the first time this week, her claims were immediately exposed as untrue. Her position came in serious danger, since Wednesday she is suspended.