Arts Professionals Accuse Ghent Museum of Exhibiting Unauthenticated Works

A group of collectors, curators, and scholars has penned an open letter in protest of an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts Ghent in Belgium. In the document, which was first published by the Art Newspaper, the arts professionals criticize the display of twenty-four works attributed to members of the Russian avant-garde that have allegedly never been seen before, and claim that the show is “highly questionable.”

Titled “From Bosch to Tuymans: A Vital Story,” the exhibition, which opened on October 20, 2017, and runs through February 28, 2018, is billed as a revised presentation of the museum’s permanent collection. According to its website, the show is a “new thematic display of two centuries of Western art, featuring unseen additions to the collection and new work created by three contemporary artists.” Yet, the signatories of the open letter argue that works attributed to artists such as Wassily Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich, pieces which are on display despite not being part of the museum’s collection, are not mentioned in any known scholarship and lack provenance information. The artworks were loaned from the Dieleghem Foundation, a charity established by the Brussels-based Russian businessman and art collector Igor Toporovski. The works will also be showcased in an exhibition of Toporovski’s collection that will be staged at the museum at the end of the year.

The authorship of the works was first called into question when the museum did not publish a catalogue and did not provide an exhibition history or any information related to their provenance when the show opened. Among the signatories of the letter are Vivian Endicott Barnett, who wrote the catalogues raisonnés for Kandinsky and Alexej von Jawlensky; Aeksandra Shatskikh, who is the author of several books on Malevich; and Natalia Murray, a Courtauld Institute of Art curator, who organized the exhibition “Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932,” presented by the Royal Academy in London last year.

In response to the concerns regarding the origins of the works, a museum spokesperson told Colin Gleadell of Artnet that the institution “followed standard procedures to review the loans ahead of the exhibition, speaking extensively with the collector and reviewing supporting material supplied by his foundation.” The foundation also told Artnet that it maintains files with information related to the works’ provenance, history, and condition and that it can provide this information on request, for research, scholars, and professionals.

The open letter in full is as follows:

On 20 October 2017, the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent (MSK - Museum voor Schone Kunsten Gent) opened a new display of its permanent collection to the public. However, among the exhibited artworks were 26 pieces that did not belong to the museum—objects attributed to Kazimir Malevich, Wassily Kandinsky, Vladimir Tatlin, Lazar el Lissitzky, Alexei Jawlensky, Natalia Goncharova, Mikhail Larionov and other artists of the Russian avant-garde.

The museum website does not offer any information about how the institution was able to assemble this exhibition: according to the Belgian press—the artworks in question were given on long-term loan by the Dieleghem Foundation established by Mr. Igor Toporkovski, an art collector from Brussels.

All the works exhibited could be defined as highly questionable. They have no exhibition history, have never before been reproduced in serious scholarly publications and have no traceable sales records. The exhibited paintings by Wassily Kandinsky and Alexei Jawlensky are not included in the catalogues raisonné—internationally recognized as the definitive sources for determining the work created by these artists. Objects such as a box and distaff allegedly decorated by Kazimir Malevich have no known analogues and there are no historical records that even mention that the artist ever was involved in the decoration of such objects. Practically every other work exhibited provokes similar questions. The museum did not publish a catalogue and did not provide any information about their provenance or exhibition history on the wall labels other than the name of the owner.

There are other questions that these 26 artworks raise which need to be addressed and debated. Would it not be best, until answers to these questions are forthcoming, that the works are taken off view and not presented in a way that risks misleading the public?

According to the Belgian newspaper <em>La Libre, Ms. Catherine de Zegher, the Director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent is planning to exhibit more works from the Dieleghem Foundation collection in 2018, together with loans from other European museums. According to La Libre, Zegher stated that she will try “to rewrite the history of the Russian avant-garde.” This is a bold statement and one must venture to ask, how?</em>

Ms. de Zegher is a renowned curator of contemporary art. She curated the Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art in 2013, but this experience does not make her an expert on Russian avant-garde painting. When Ms. de Zegher became the director of the MSK she declared that her task was to create an “open museum”. Unfortunately, she opened the institution entrusted to her with questionable works.

Dr. Konstantin Akinsha, art historian, curator
Vivian Barnett, independent scholar
Julian Barran, art dealer
Ivor Braka, art dealer
James Butterwick, art dealer
Jacques de la Beraudiere, art dealer
Alex Lachman, collector
Dr. Natalia Murray, art historian, curator
Richard Nagy, art dealer
Dr. Alexandra Shatskikh, art historian, curator
Ingrid Hutton, art dealer