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 Ghent’s 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 Belgium’s 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 museum’s depot, although earlier reports said the pieces had been returned to the owners after being taken down. The Toporovsky’s 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 anybody’s guess.
But there is another, perhaps more fundamental, question at the heart of this story: was proper due diligence conducted?. The term ‘due diligence’ 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 [For further reading, check out this book]. When ascertaining that proper due diligence was conducted, the authenticity of the pieces is of relatively lesser importance. While madam De Zegher would, in layman’s terms, more easily “get away with it”, if the pieces were indeed by Malevich’s, Goncharova’s or Kandinsky’s 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 museum’s 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 firm’s investigation.
Museums across Europe are increasingly asked to be economically self-reliant while at the same time they are faced with Departments of Culture’s budgets being cut. This drives museums to look to the private market to help stage the blockbuster exhibitions they need to make the required revenue. This, alongside the pressures of time, creates a climate that is not always conductive to the performance of due diligence.
As such, the Ernst & Young audit is a welcome development, as is any effort to further clarify due diligence and highlight its importance. Although the ICOM Code of Ethics and other reference practices have done important work in establishing quality due diligence standards, this case, and other recent cases, make it look like their message has not yet reached all corners. It is important that it does, lest more scandals erupt in the future, besmirching museums’ reputations and eroding the public’s trust. It is essential that museums, as well as other art market players, remain aware of the requirements of due diligence and the consequences of failing to adhere to them.
The results of the audit, which are expected to be released in May, should prove essential reading.