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The museum, in St Petersburg
The museum, in St Petersburg
Vladislav Trifonov and Anna Pushkarskaya

SAINT PETERSBURG - A well-known art collector buys a painting from a long-time acquaintance, who is also a publisher of books about Russian art. He displays it in an art exhibition, and an art expert happens to see it and recognize it as a fake that she had see before and identified as a forgery The original, it turns out, is in the collection of the Russian Museum in Saint Petersburg. What happened?

Andrei Vasilev was an experienced art collector, and he had bought several works from Leonid Shumakov, a publisher of books on Russian art. Vasilev asked Shumakov to let him know if any works of art of famous collections or works that had been published in catalogues before the Russian revolution came up for sale.

Sure enough, soon afterwards, the publisher sent him an e-mail with photographs of a number of works, including the scanned pages of “My Journal for Some,” a pre-revolution publication, with the Tsar’s imperial stamp visible. The journal’s pages had a reproduction of “In The Restaurant” by Boris Grigoriev, signed in 1913. Vasilev was interested.

According to what Shumakov said, the painting came from an old Leningrad collection, only the second-ever owners of the painting. Shumakov clarified that the authenticity of the painting was not in any way doubted by experts, citing one expert in particular, Julia Solonovich from the Russian Museum. After some negotiations Vasilev purchased the painting for $250,000. The transaction took place on July 10, 2009 in Vasilev’s apartment, and was paid for in cash.

Different from the catalogue

When Vasilev got the painting, he noticed that there were some differences between the one in his hands and the one he had seen in the catalogue, but he attributed those differences to the catalogue’s color retoucher. After restoring a small part of the painting, it was exhibited in a show dedicated to artists who, like Grigoriev, had fled Russia right after the establishment of the Soviet Union.

Coincidentally, Julia Ribakova, a former expert for an art restoration center, saw the painting and recognized it as a forgery that she had already been asked to give an expert opinion on. She had come to the conclusion that the painting in question was a fake because it was signed with a material that was not used until well after the artist’s death. The Russian Museum had also determined that the painting was a fake. Ribakova informed Vasilev that his painting was a forgery.

Vasilev immediately demanded that the seller return his money. But Shumakov refused, saying he was only a middleman, and that the painting had really belonged to Elena Basner, a long-time employee of the Russian Museum. But Basner told Vasilev that the painting had never belonged to her, but instead to Mikhail Aronson, from Tallinn, Estonia. Incidentally, Aronson has a criminal history with convictions for theft, violent robbery and drug dealing. Vasilev filed a lawsuit, which is still ongoing, against Shumakov.

The Russian Museum

Already in possession of his forgery, Vasilev discovered that the original painting “In The Restaurant,” is actually in the Russian Museum’s collection. It entered the museum’s collection in the 1980s, as part of a larger collection that had belonged to a professor. Elena Basner had handled the description and registry of the works in the professor’s collection, including “In The Restaurant.”

According to Vasilev, such a high quality copy of the painting could have been done in the Museum’s storage area with the help of photographs taken in the Museum itself. That is why he has already contacted the Minister of Culture asking that the Russian Museum’s security be verified. The Ministry of Culture told Kommersant that they planned a security test in the near future

The Russian Museum denies the art collector’s accusations. One of the managers of the security department at the Museum, Grigori Goldovskii, told Kommersant that the scheme the Museum is suspected of is “completely and absolutely impossible, based on the system of security, lending and copying of works in the museum.”

According to Goldovskii, the work in question is 50 centimeters by 70 centimeters, and it would have taken more than one day to complete a copy of the painting - right under the noses of Museum staff. And the copy would have been impossible to take out of the Museum, since all the exits are guarded by police.

Concerning Elena Basner, who worked at the Museum until 2003, Goldovskii says “I could only imagine that she could cook up such a scheme if I were in a complete delirium.” Basner says that she is happy that the investigation will be starting shortly, because she is also interested in having the police find out what happened. “I know I am innocent,” she said, affirming that she got the painting from Mikhail Aronson.

She also maintained that she had no knowledge of Aronson’s criminal past. Shumakov, from whom Vasilev bought the painting, told Kommersant that he is confident in the painting’s authenticity. “In any case, no one has proven the contrary yet,” he said. 



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