Russian police have searched Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery as part of an investigation into a suspected art smuggling scheme. The move follows the detention of a government official at Vnukovo airport, who reportedly tried to leave the country carrying five works of art with paperwork valuing them at a fraction of their real price. It also comes just months after the culture ministry unexpectedly sacked the Tretyakov’s director, Irina Lebedeva. We asked James Butterwick, a leading expert and dealer in Russian art, for comment.
Export of works of art from Russia is a relatively painless process. Any work that is 100 years old or less is exportable, requiring the permission and indeed a valuation from the Ministry of Culture. The paperwork usually takes two or three weeks and, though I confess that I have always used an agent, I have found the entire process and the subsequent Customs formalities very easy.
In my opinion, the incident described may be shock tactics on behalf of the Russian Security Services merely to shake up the world of antiques or a particular individual, particularly since there are serious moves afoot to liberalise export. Why raid the Tretyakov Gallery when it is the Ministry of Culture that is responsible for valuations and public institutions – especially in Russia – tend to distance themselves from the vagaries of the market?
The accusations of corruption against Russian museums is hardly news: there will always be rumours flying about. An ‘anonymous letter of 2011’ is hardly a convincing source of information when the matter has been openly debated for many years. Accusations of theft I have heard; accusations of producing ‘certificates of authenticity’ [Russian curators are often asked provide attribution or valuation advice] for paintings with tenuous, if any, links to an original have long been known about and discussed. In some cases, to my certain knowledge, the museum experts in question were sacked by Irina Lebedeva herself. Indeed, she took a very public stance in 2011 when two books on Natalia Goncharova, with a mass of paintings of dubious authenticity, were published in the West.