Skip to main content

The curious case of Kandinsky: how Communist Russia enabled art forgers to make millions

The curious case of Kandinsky: how Communist Russia enabled art forgers to make millions


Avant garde paintings fuel a forensic 'arms race' between criminals and scientists

Share this story

If you buy something from a Verge link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

kandinsky (wikimedia)
kandinsky (wikimedia)

Wassily Kandinsky's Composition VII, 1913. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

On the morning of May 12th, more than 100 police officers stormed a house in Wiesbaden, Germany, as part of an enormous raid that spanned three nations and several warehouses, businesses, and art galleries. Their target: two men accused of masterminding a multimillion-dollar art-forgery ring.

The arrested suspects, aged 41 and 67, have not been identified and are awaiting trial. But the nearly 1,000 fake paintings and documents discovered in May speak to the breadth of their alleged operation. German police say the men have sold more than 400 forged paintings attributed to Russian avant garde artists like Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, and Alexej von Jawlensky. The works were sold for between four and seven figures, including two that recently went for a combined $3 million.

Germany's federal police described the raid as an "important blow" to the international forgery market, though it's far from unique. Over the past two decades, police have seen a surge in fake Russian avant garde paintings, fueled by a combination of aesthetics, economics, and Communist-era politics. Paintings from this era — spanning from the 1890s to early 1930s — have proven relatively easy for forgers to copy, despite recent advancements in forensics and imaging technology. But why Russia, and why now?

Why Russia, and why now?

Auction houses and museums typically subject any work to rigorous testing and analysis prior to purchase, but Russian avant garde paintings pose unique challenges.

For one, Russia's turbulent 20th century makes it difficult for experts to establish provenance — a paper trail of certificates and previous sales receipts that help bolster a painting’s authenticity. In the case of many avant garde paintings, these documents may have been lost or destroyed over time, and are often forged with relative ease. (Faked certificates of authenticity were among the 1,000 objects discovered during the raid in Germany this Spring.)

After assessing a painting's provenance, experts analyze its composition — a task that combines both aesthetic and scientific expertise. Ultraviolet (UV) lamps, X-ray, and infrared radiation are among the most common imaging tools used today, allowing investigators to see where fresher paint may have been applied and exposing the artist’s original sketches behind the paint layer.

"If you see changes underneath the final composition, that's a good sign that the work likely isn't a copy," says Dr. Francesca Casadio, co-director of the Northwestern University-Art Institute of Chicago Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts (NU-ACCESS). "If someone copies something, they don't change their decision making process, they don't erase or start over."


One of the allegedly forged paintings discovered during the Wiesbaden, Germany raid in May. It was labeled as "Kazimir Malevich — Supremus". Photo provided courtesy of Bundeskriminalamt (BKA)

Three years ago, Steven Saverwyns, a researcher at the Royal Institute of Cultural Heritage in Brussels, used raman spectroscopy to prove that six paintings attributed to the Russian avant garde painter Liubov Popova were in fact forgeries. Raman spectroscopy is a method whereby photons are beamed at a painting to determine its chemical composition, based on patterns in the way the photons interact with the pigment.

In this case, Saverwyns found that the pigment compounds in the purported Popova paintings could not have been in use during Popova’s lifetime because they were patented after her death. It’s here, in the molecular details, where many forgers trip up.

Forgers face molecular pitfalls

"There is a lot of craft and effort put into making very realistic, very aesthetically accurate images," Casadio said in a phone interview with The Verge. "But there's a little bit of sloppiness when it comes to picking pigment materials. A lot of the materials we find in these forgeries were patented long after the artist died."

But the problem with the Russian avant garde is that many materials used by Kandinsky are still used today. And as Casadio notes, forgers have become more intelligent over time, taking greater care to use historically accurate pigments.

They've also become more drawn to Russian art in recent years, due to both skyrocketing prices and convenient aesthetics. Unlike older, realist art, paintings by Kandinsky and his contemporaries — with their geometric patterns and abstracted forms — are relatively simple to copy.

"It's hard to replicate a Rembrandt, but it’s much easier to draw a black square."

"The biggest problem is style," says William MacDougall, director of the London-based MacDougall's Auction House, which sells Russian art. "It's hard to replicate a Rembrandt, but it’s much easier to draw a black square and convince someone that it's avant garde."

The fall of Communism has fueled the avant garde black market as well, albeit indirectly. When Joseph Stalin came into power in the mid-1920s, he cracked down on Malevich and other artists, excoriating their work as "bourgeois" and confiscating many paintings. Once Russia liberalized its economy in the 1990s, Malevich and his contemporaries assumed a more lofty status among Moscow's ultra-rich oligarchs, and prices shot skyward. By MacDougall's estimates, prices for avant garde works have increased by "800 or 900 percent" over the past 20 years.

The spate of Russian forgeries has certainly made buyers more cautious — MacDougall says that his auction house rejects about 80 percent of all the paintings it receives — though it doesn't appear to have had a significant impact on market prices. Last month, buyers spent more than $76 million at a series of Russian art auctions across London, marking the highest total in five years.


Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Composition, 1915. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Chemical analysis also requires deeper contextual knowledge — both of an artist's portfolio and the scientific developments of his or her era — to determine whether a certain material could have been used at the time.

"For all the analysis you do, it’s more or less meaningless without an understanding of the history of materials," says Dr. Nicholas Eastaugh, director of research at Art Access and Research, a London-based forensics lab. "You might have a patent date [for a given material], but you don't necessarily know whether the chemistry was well understood and widely used before the patent was taken out."

There's an important distinction between identifying forgeries and authenticating authorship, as well. Chemistry can determine whether a work could have been painted by Kandinsky, but experts are still needed for confirmation.

"No science can tell you if a certain artist painted something."

"There's no science that can tell you whether a certain artist painted something," Cassadio explains. "You still need the connoisseur — someone who’s familiar with an artist’s work and who has looked at hundreds of their paintings — to authenticate. So there has to be a constant conversation between the two disciplines."

But researchers are trying to tilt the scales toward the scientific, raising new philosophical debates in the curator community. In recent years, computer scientist have developed algorithms developing algorithms capable of ascribing authorship to a painting based on its brushstroke patterns, textures, and other qualities. The idea is to train computers to instantly recognize an artist's "fingerprint," though it remains a somewhat nascent field.

"Why should we trust a connoisseur but not a computer program?"

The specter of a machine-led future has irked some connoisseurs — especially when science disproves their claims — raising philosophical debates between forensic and aesthetic experts.

"It's a question that comes up in museums and art circles: why should we trust the eye of the connoisseur but not a computer program?" Casadio says, though she predicts that connoisseurs will always have an important role to play. "A machine gives you incontrovertible data, but it's still the human that tells it where to look, what to analyze, and that requires expertise."

As scientists continue searching for more accurate ways to flag frauds, forgers are doing their best to keep up — fueling what Eastaugh describes as an "arms race" of intelligence. Experts acknowledge that such lucrative prices will likely make it difficult to keep forgers at bay, but MacDougall sees some cause for optimism.

"There have been several high-profile police cases as of late," he says, referencing the May raid in Germany. "So at least they’re getting caught."

Not all, though. The two men captured in Germany two months ago are believed to be part of a six-person operation spread across Israel and Switzerland. The other four suspects are still at large.

Today’s Storystream

Feed refreshed 5:33 PM UTC Striking out

Andrew Webster5:33 PM UTC
Look at this Thing.

At its Tudum event today, Netflix showed off a new clip from the Tim Burton series Wednesday, which focused on a very important character: the sentient hand known as Thing. The full series starts streaming on November 23rd.

The Verge
Andrew Webster4:28 PM UTC
Get ready for some Netflix news.

At 1PM ET today Netflix is streaming its second annual Tudum event, where you can expect to hear news about and see trailers from its biggest franchises, including The Witcher and Bridgerton. I’ll be covering the event live alongside my colleague Charles Pulliam-Moore, and you can also watch along at the link below. There will be lots of expected names during the stream, but I have my fingers crossed for a new season of Hemlock Grove.

Jay PetersSep 23
Twitch’s creators SVP is leaving the company.

Constance Knight, Twitch’s senior vice president of global creators, is leaving for a new opportunity, according to Bloomberg’s Cecilia D’Anastasio. Knight shared her departure with staff on the same day Twitch announced impending cuts to how much its biggest streamers will earn from subscriptions.

Tom WarrenSep 23
Has the Windows 11 2022 Update made your gaming PC stutter?

Nvidia GPU owners have been complaining of stuttering and poor frame rates with the latest Windows 11 update, but thankfully there’s a fix. Nvidia has identified an issue with its GeForce Experience overlay and the Windows 11 2022 Update (22H2). A fix is available in beta from Nvidia’s website.

External Link
If you’re using crash detection on the iPhone 14, invest in a really good phone mount.

Motorcycle owner Douglas Sonders has a cautionary tale in Jalopnik today about the iPhone 14’s new crash detection feature. He was riding his LiveWire One motorcycle down the West Side Highway at about 60 mph when he hit a bump, causing his iPhone 14 Pro Max to fly off its handlebar mount. Soon after, his girlfriend and parents received text messages that he had been in a horrible accident, causing several hours of panic. The phone even called the police, all because it fell off the handlebars. All thanks to crash detection.

Riding a motorcycle is very dangerous, and the last thing anyone needs is to think their loved one was in a horrible crash when they weren’t. This is obviously an edge case, but it makes me wonder what other sort of false positives we see as more phones adopt this technology.

External Link
Ford is running out of its own Blue Oval badges.

Running out of semiconductors is one thing, but running out of your own iconic nameplates is just downright brutal. The Wall Street Journal reports badge and nameplate shortages are impacting the automaker's popular F-series pickup lineup, delaying deliveries and causing general chaos.

Some executives are even proposing a 3D printing workaround, but they didn’t feel like the substitutes would clear the bar. All in all, it's been a dreadful summer of supply chain setbacks for Ford, leading the company to reorganize its org chart to bring some sort of relief.

Spain’s Transports Urbans de Sabadell has La Bussí.

Once again, the US has fallen behind in transportation — call it the Bussí gap. A hole in our infrastructure, if you will.

External Link
Jay PetersSep 23
Doing more with less (extravagant holiday parties).

Sundar Pichai addressed employees’ questions about Google’s spending changes at an all-hands this week, according to CNBC.

“Maybe you were planning on hiring six more people but maybe you are going to have to do with four and how are you going to make that happen?” Pichai sent a memo to workers in July about a hiring slowdown.

In the all-hands, Google’s head of finance also asked staff to try not to go “over the top” for holiday parties.

External Link
Insiders made the most money off of Helium’s “People’s Network.”

Remember Helium, which was touted by The New York Times in an article entitled “Maybe There’s a Use for Crypto After All?” Not only was the company misleading people about who used it — Salesforce and Lime weren’t using it, despite what Helium said on its site — Helium disproportionately enriched insiders, Forbes reports.