Russia History Modern Scandals Art Forgery Worldbackwards: The Elena Basner Case

Worldbackwards: The Elena Basner Case

On 16 July 2014, a major retrospective of Kazimir Malevich opened at the Tate Modern in London. But the woman responsible for the cardinal redating of Malevich’s canvases and a radical reassessment of the artist’s oeuvre, Elena Basner, was not at the show.

Instead of taking her rightful place among the other distinguished guests and curators, Elena Basner was spending her sixth month under arrest in Russia. On 31 January 2014, she was sensationally detained by police in St Petersburg on what are widely regarded as trumped-up charges.

Five years earlier, in July 2009, Russian art collector and dealer Andrei Vasilyev acquired a gouache supposedly painted by another famous avant-garde artist – Boris Grigoriev’s In a Restaurant (1913). But the work was later declared a forgery and one of those involved in the case, world-renowned art historian and writer Elena Basner, is currently under house arrest pending a criminal trial.

UPDATE: Elena Basner beat all the odds in modern-day Russia and, at the end of a trial lasting over fifteen months, was acquitted by judge Anzhelika Morozova of the Dzerzhinsky District Court on 17 May 2016. However, for reasons of posterity and interest, it has been decided to leave this article as it was written shortly after the news of Basner’s arrest in 2014.

Elena Basner is the daughter of famous Soviet composer Veniamin Basner (1925–1996) and possibly the world’s leading authority on Russian avant-garde art. From 1978 to 2003, she worked as a senior curator in the department of painting (mid-19th to late-20th centuries) at the State Russian Museum in St Petersburg.

After leaving the Russian Museum in 2003, Basner founded and headed the Museum of the St Petersburg Avant-Garde in the former house of Mikhail Matiushin and Elena Guro at 10 Professor Popov Street in St Petersburg. She was also employed in nearby Finland as a private consultant for Swedish auction house Bukowskis.

In May 2009, Elena Basner was approached by an Estonian citizen, Mikhail Aranson (Aronson), who had found her contact details on the Bukowskis website. Aranson telephoned Basner and said that he would like to check the authenticity of a gouache painted by Boris Grigoriev, which had once been part of an old Leningrad collection.

Elena Basner promised Mikhail Aranson that she would examine the work on her next visit to St Petersburg. This happened on 6 July 2009, when Aranson brought In a Restaurant to her apartment. After examining the gouache and showing it to another expert, Yulia Solonovich of the Russian Museum, Basner told Aranson that she believed the picture to be genuine.

In the course of her professional examination, Elena Basner paid a visit to Leonid Shumakov, general director of the Golden Age publishing house and art salon in St Petersburg. In 2007, Shumakov had produced a landmark book on the artist – Tamara Galeyeva’s Boris Dmitryevich Grigoriev. Basner wanted to consult the catalogue and see if Aranson’s work was listed there (it was not).

Leonid Shumakov was intrigued by Basner’s description of this hitherto unknown work and expressed an interest in acquiring it for resale to “a rich and famous client from Moscow.” After examining the painting himself and consulting with other art historians, who also confirmed its authenticity, Shumakov agreed to buy it from Aranson for $180,000.

One of Leonid Shumakov’s regular customers was Andrei Vasilyev, an art collector from St Petersburg, who had asked to be informed if a work previously in a well-known collection or reproduced in a pre-revolutionary catalogue appeared on the market. In a Restaurant appeared to fit both criteria.

When Mikhail Aranson had told Elena Basner that he had a gouache by Boris Grigoriev from an old Leningrad collection, she had assumed that it must be one of the many works from the Nikolai Timofeyev collection. Back in the 1920s, General Nikolai Timofeyev had acquired a large number of Grigoriev paintings from the original owner, Alexander Burtsev.

Alexander Burtsev (1869–1938) was an art patron, collector, publisher, banker and honorary citizen of St Petersburg. He held exhibitions of his collections and financed Boris Grigoriev’s trip to Paris in 1913. After the revolution, most of his property was confiscated by the state, while he and his wife were later executed on false charges of spying for Finland.

In the mid-1980s, Elena Basner had often visited the Timofeyev collection, which included a whole series of Parisian café scenes painted by Boris Grigoriev in 1913. She believed that Mikhail Aranson’s gouache was one of these works, which explains why Shumakov later assured Vasilyev that it came from a “well-known local collection.”

Shortly before the revolution, Alexander Burtsev had published an exclusive periodical called My Journal for the Few with news and reproductions of works from his collection. In 1914, one of the issues carried a black-and-white photograph of In a Restaurant. In this way, Aranson’s painting fulfilled all the conditions required by Vasilyev before purchasing a work of art.

On 10 July 2009, Leonid Shumakov phoned Andrei Vasilyev and asked if he was interested in a previously unknown painting by Boris Grigoriev. When Vasilyev responded in the affirmative, Shumakov sent him an e-mail containing two images – a photograph of the gouache in Elena Basner’s apartment on 6 July and a scan of the relevant page from My Journal for the Few in 1914.

Andrei Vasilyev had no qualms regarding the authenticity of the offered work after hearing of the presumed “Burtsev-Timofeyev” provenance. Leonid Shumakov was able to supply the additional information that several qualified experts had already examined the painting – and no one had any doubts regarding its authenticity.

On 11 July 2009, Leonid Shumakov brought the gouache to Andrei Vasilyev’s apartment on the Petrograd Side, where Vasilyev paid for it in cash. The painting was sold for $250,000 – which was $70,000 more than Shumakov had paid to Aranson only a few days earlier. Leonid Shumakov kept $50,000 for himself and presented $20,000 to Elena Basner.

Something else that Vasilyev did not know was that on 9 February 2009 – five months before he acquired the painting – an unnamed person had gone to the Igor Grabar Restoration Centre in Moscow with the very same work. The centre issued expertises on works of art and this person wanted to know if his painting was genuine or not.

The gouache was examined by Yulia Rybakova in an investigation lasting almost four months. Unlike all the other experts who studied In a Restaurant, Rybakova claimed that her suspicions were immediately aroused by the “substandard quality” of the painting, which she described as being “considerably lower” than any other work by Boris Grigoriev.

A chemical-technological analysis of the paint uncovered phthalocyanine pigments which were only used after the Second World War (Grigoriev died on the French Riviera in 1939). The technicians also found pencil sketches which, they said, were not typical of the artist.

This was enough for the Igor Grabar Restoration Centre to conclude that the submitted work was a forgery. The unknown customer collected the gouache on 18 June 2009, but declined to take the official expertise. Several days later, Mikhail Aranson visited Elena Basner...

Andrei Vasilyev was completely unaware of this. After restoring a small section of the work, he loaned it to the Natalia Kournikova Gallery in Moscow, which was holding an exhibition called Parizhachi from 20 March to 20 May 2010. Yulia Rybakova happened to visit the exhibition and immediately recognised the painting she had recently declared a forgery.

Yulia Rybakova relayed this information to the gallery owner, Natalia Kournikova, who removed the work from the exhibition and informed Andrei Vasilyev. At first, Vasilyev did not believe the story, putting it down to the petty claims and counterclaims commonly encountered in the back-biting and jealousy-ridden world of Russian art.

After collecting his painting from the Moscow exhibition, Vasilyev contacted Leonid Shumakov, who assured him that the work was genuine and that the Moscow experts were wrong. This was when the full story came out that Shumakov had acquired the work via Elena Basner.

Andrei Vasilyev was furious, because he had known Basner for over thirty years, but had recently fallen out with her. Vasilyev claims that he had helped Basner to find employment at Bukowskis – although Basner’s reputation alone was enough for that – and that they had dropped all contact in 2004 following a disagreement over the Solomon Shuster collection.

Vasilyev was further incensed at the knowledge that In a Restaurant had not come from a well-known collection. He asked Leonid Shumakov to take back the painting and return his money. Shumakov refused to do so and advised ordering a second expertise, this time from the Russian Museum in St Petersburg.

Andrei Vasilyev submitted In a Restaurant to the museum experts in March 2011. In yet another remarkable coincidence, the Russian Museum opened a long-planned Grigoriev retrospective on 21 April 2011. Vasilyev acquired the exhibition catalogue – and saw an identical work from the museum’s own collection, entitled Parisian Café (1913).

Parisian Café was not included in the Grigoriev retrospective owing to a lack of space. But Vasilyev read that it had been stored in the repositories of the Russian Museum since 1984, when it had been bequeathed to the museum by Kira Okuneva, daughter of collector Boris Okunev.

Boris Okunev (1897–1961) had been a leading expert on artillery ballistics and a professor at the Leningrad Mechanical Institute. Over the course of his life, he amassed one of the finest private art collections in the Soviet Union. These works were inherited by his daughter, Kira, who decided in 1983 to donate the entire collection to the Russian Museum.

Besides several paintings by Boris Grigoriev, such as Portrait of Yakov Israelevich (circa 1916) and Girl with a Milk Churn (1917), the Boris Okunev collection included many other masterpieces of fin-de-siècle and avant-garde art by Konstantin Korovin, Léon Bakst, Konstantin Somov, Nikolai Kalmakov, Natalia Goncharova, David Burliuk, Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, Boris Kustodiev and Zinaida Serebryakova. In the mid-1980s, the Russian Museum had valued the collection as being worth $1,500,000.

Before her death, Kira Okuneva had compiled a detailed list of all the works in her father’s collection. Every single piece was to be awarded to the Russian Museum. The list included Parisian Café (1913, gouache, watercolours, tempera and whiting on cardboard, 53.3 x 70.7 cm), which Boris Okunev had acquired in an antique shop in Leningrad in 1946.

Andrei Vasilyev failed to notice that In a Restaurant was noticeably larger than the gouache in the museum (62.2 x 79.7 cm). The collector was convinced that he had been sold a forgery copied from a work now in the Russian Museum – where Elena Basner had worked for twenty-five years.

Vasilyev’s suspicions were further confirmed when the experts of the Russian Museum arrived at the same conclusion as the Igor Grabar Restoration Centre. On 8 June 2011, they issued their formal conclusion that In a Restaurant was a forgery...

But Andrei Vasilyev was not one to give up without a fight. A psychiatrist by profession, he had started collecting avant-garde art back in the 1970s, when it was still under prohibition. In 1984, he was sentenced to four years in prison for refusing to give evidence against his friend, Mikhail Meilakh, who was accused by the KGB of distributing anti-Soviet literature.

In the summer of 2009, Vasilyev travelled to Tallinn in an attempt to track down Mikhail Aranson. He was unable to find him, but he did learn from the Estonian police that Aranson had a criminal record and had spent time in prison for theft and drug dealing. This did not seem to tie in with the description of the well-spoken individual who had contacted Elena Basner.

Vasilyev’s next step was to file a civil complaint against Leonid Shumakov in the Vyborg District Court of St Petersburg. He asked for their contract to be declared null and void and for the $250,000 he had paid for the gouache to be returned to him. But the suit was dismissed on account of the expiry of the statute of limitations (two years).

After exhausting these channels, Andrei Vasilyev sought the opening of a criminal case. On 15 June 2011, he filed a complaint with the antiquarian department of the St Petersburg Police, claiming that he had been the victim of “fraud on a particularly large scale,” a crime punishable by up to ten years in prison.

The antiquarian department questioned the witnesses and handed their findings over to the criminal investigation department. In September 2011, the criminal investigation department ruled that it “found no evidence of the substance of a crime” and declined to open a criminal case.

This order was then reversed by the procurator and the case was returned to the criminal investigation department. Over the next six months, the district investigators signed a further two orders of refusal, which were again overruled by the procurator.

In March 2012, Vasilyev filed a complaint with the Petrograd District Court over the “inaction” of the chief investigator, Timofei Nilov. Four months later, the St Petersburg Police finally opened a criminal investigation based on Article 19 (4) of the Russian Criminal Code. But, in the summer of 2013, the case was again halted due to a “failure to establish the perpetrators.”

So things would have remained had Vasilyev not read on the internet that Alexander Bastrykin, head of the Investigative Committee, was holding a surgery for local citizens in August 2013. Bastrykin had graduated from the Faculty of Law of Leningrad University in 1975 alongside Russian president Vladimir Putin, who appointed him head of the Investigative Committee (“Russia’s FBI”) in January 2011.

Andrei Vasilyev met with Alexander Bastrykin, who advised him to submit an official request to transfer the jurisdiction of the case from the St Petersburg Police to his own Investigative Committee. Many claim that Bastrykin, a corrupt official who illegally owns real estate in Spain and the Czech Republic, would have exacted from Vasilyev as much money as the painting cost for this service...

In October 2013, the criminal investigation was handed over to the St Petersburg branch of the Investigative Committee – which immediately saw everything in an entirely different light. On 31 January 2014, Vasilyev and the rest of the art world learnt the sensational news that Elena Basner had been arrested and imprisoned on suspicion of fraud.

In January 2014, Elena Basner had been quietly working in Finland for Bukowskis. She returned to St Petersburg at the end of the month – and the Investigative Committee was waiting for her. On the morning of 31 January, detectives arrived at her home and carried out a detailed search lasting over six hours, confiscating all computers, telephones and electronic devices.

At the end of the search, Basner was told that she was being detained. She was transported to the local headquarters of the Investigative Committee at 86 River Moika Embankment, where she was formally charged. The art historian was then taken to the Central District Remand Prison (SIZO) at 6 Zakharyevskaya Street.

All this came as a complete shock to Elena Basner, who had previously only figured as a witness in the case, not as a suspect, and had been assured by the police that she had answered all their questions. Like everyone else, she had no idea that the case had been transferred to the jurisdiction of the Investigative Committee in October 2013.

The Russian art community was equally shocked at this unexpected development. An online petition asking the courts to free Basner was instantly launched, gathering 2,400 signatures. Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the Hermitage Museum, announced to journalists: “I regard this as an insult to the whole intelligentsia. Such measures, when a woman from the humanitarian profession is imprisoned, spit on the whole Russian intelligentsia.”

On 5 February 2014, the October District Court at 17 Pochtamtskaya Street ruled that Elena Basner be released from the detention centre, but kept under house arrest for an initial period of two months. An appeal against this ruling by Basner’s lawyer, who offered bail of three million roubles ($85,000) and a written pledge not to leave town, was rejected on 25 February.

Ironically, on the day after Basner appeared in court, Leonid Shumakov found himself at the centre of another fraud case. On 6 February 2014, children’s writer Valery Voskoboinikov claimed that Shumakov had illegally published his Illustrated Bible for Family Reading and launched civil complaints against all retailers and wholesalers selling the book.

On 15 April 2014, the October District Court extended Elena Basner’s period of house arrest for another five months – until 15 September 2014. A week later, she was hospitalised for several days following an attack of hypertension. The period of house arrest was then extended on 16 September for another three months – until 15 December 2014.

It was finally announced on 16 December 2014 that the prosecution had completed its investigation. The criminal case was submitted on 19 January 2015 to the Dzerzhinsky District Court, which set a date for the start of the trial – 11 February 2015. On 30 January 2015, Basner was released from house arrest in exchange for a written pledge not to leave town.

After spending a week in prison and a year under house arrest, Elena Basner is finally facing trial in St Petersburg. But, as we shall now explain, the case against the 58-year-old art historian fails to stand up to any rigorous analysis – and the only possible outcome of a free and fair trial is a verdict of acquittal.

Is Elena Basner Guilty of the Accused Crime?

Sergei Kapitonov, a spokesman for the Investigative Committee, explained in February 2014 that Elena Basner is accused of “giving a knowingly false conclusion in summer 2009 about the authenticity of Boris Grigoriev’s painting In a Restaurant, which was consequently sold to a bona fide purchaser for $250,000.”

But it has not even been fully established that the painting is a forgery. The Igor Grabar Restoration Centre only declared the submitted work a fake after it failed the chemical-technological analysis (it passed all other tests). The Russian Museum also equivocated before issuing a negative expertise – and was hardly inclined to say it was genuine when the object of contention was already in its own collection.

Furthermore, even if Andrei Vasilyev’s gouache is a forgery, how can the Investigative Committee know that Basner knew this? None of the participants in the case suspected that the work was a fake. Basner and many other art historians who examined the painting, both before and after it was sold, continue to insist that In a Restaurant is genuine.

The only person who could know that the work is a forgery is the mystery figure who submitted the gouache for testing at the Igor Grabar Restoration Centre in February 2009 – and was told in June 2009 that it was a fake. So why has the Investigation Committee not arrested this individual?

Elena Basner is accused of “giving a knowingly false conclusion in summer 2009.” But she only conducted a visual examination of the painting, in a completely unofficial capacity, in her private home. No documents were compiled, no expertise was signed. She verbally informed Aranson that, in her personal opinion, the work was genuine – that was all.

Neither could Elena Basner know that the painting would be “consequently sold to a bona fide purchaser for $250,000.” She had no idea that the painting would end up in the hands of Andrei Vasilyev. Basner only learnt that he was the ultimate owner of the work when he himself contacted her in the winter of 2010/11.

Why Did the Police Refuse to Open a Criminal Case?

For over two years, from the time Andrei Vasilyev filed his first police complaint in June 2011 to when the case was transferred to the Investigative Committee in October 2013, Russian prosecutors consistently refused to open a criminal case. Why did they not see evidence of a crime – and yet the Investigative Committee saw it straight away?

Andrei Vasilyev claims that police investigators had told him, in an off-the-record conversation, that the case would never get off the ground, because Elena Basner had a very influential lawyer. This was Larisa Malkova, who had previously served as the head of criminal investigation for Frunze District in St Petersburg and reputedly had excellent connections.

While this is true, the former head of a local criminal investigation department does not have enough power to override a police enquiry in another district several years after she retired from her post. Yes, Larisa Malkova was the lawyer of Elena Basner – but Basner was not the only figure in the case and not even a suspect, only a witness, in the eyes of the police.

The main problem for a successful prosecution was that two years had passed from the time the gouache was acquired in July 2009 to when it was declared a forgery in June 2011. Anything could have happened in the intervening period. The police could not even exclude the possibility that the collector had himself substituted a fake painting for the real work.

Although this theory seems unlikely, given the time and energy Andrei Vasilyev has spent in pursuing the case, the possibility still exists. Any defence lawyer would immediately point this out in court – casting doubt on the prosecution and wrecking the case from the start.

What is the Role of the Russian Museum?

Elena Basner joined the Russian Museum in 1978, after graduating from the Ilya Repin Institute of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture in Leningrad, where she studied the theory and history of art. She worked at the museum’s department of painting for twenty-five years.

This means that Elena Basner was at the Russian Museum in 1984, when it received the Okunev collection. Between 1984 and 2003, when she resigned, Basner worked for the very institution which owned Boris Grigoriev’s Parisian Café. Andrei Vasilyev immediately seized on this as evidence of her ability to either steal the original or to create a copy.

But Elena Basner was attached to the department of painting – meaning oil or tempera paintings on canvas or wood. Gouaches, watercolours, prints and other works on paper or cardboard are assigned to the department of graphic art. So Basner would not have come into physical contact with Parisian Café.

When the Okunev collection entered the Russian Museum, the “graphic” works were studied by Elena Selizarova. She compiled and edited the 84-page catalogue when the museum held an exhibition of the Okunev collection in 1986. The catalogue contained a short description of Parisian Café, but no illustration.

Because Parisian Café was not reproduced anywhere before 2011, except on a black-and-white photograph in 1914, Andrei Vasilyev believes that his gouache could only have been created by someone with access to the Russian Museum. In his opinion, the creation of such a high-class forgery required the presence of either the original or detailed photographs.

In the Russian Museum, all works on paper are kept in sealed drawers in full view of all the other departmental staff. The removal of any work from its place of storage is documented in a series of acts recorded in a journal. Members of the public need a special pass to visit a museum department and their times of entry and exit are carefully recorded.

Although artists and restorers often visit museums to make replicas of paintings and drawings, this process is strictly controlled. Since Parisian Café was acquired in 1984, the Russian Museum has received no requests to make copies of any works by Boris Grigoriev. This suggests that Andrei Vasilyev’s forgery was more likely created before the gouache entered the museum.

In theory, Parisian Café could have been copied at any time between 1913 and 1946, when Boris Okunev found it in an antique shop. It could also have been copied at any time between 1946 and 1983, when it belonged to Okunev. Many Soviet collectors privately showed and exchanged works with other collectors. Anything could have happened while a painting was on such a temporary loan to a fellow collector.

This is the main argument employed by the museum to deflect suspicion away from its doors. It should be pointed out, however, that forging an avant-garde painting by an émigré artist was unthinkable under Stalin in the 1930s and 1940s. A fake modernist work could only have appeared, at the very earliest, in the mid-1950s – or, more likely, from the early 1960s, when the first Soviet exhibitions of avant-garde art began to be held.

The early Soviet forgeries were naive and poorly painted. It was only later, in the 1980s and beyond, that high-quality fakes began to appear. The entire discussion around Boris Grigoriev’s painting, of course, is based on the premise that the original is in the Russian Museum. We shall show below that this is probably not the case.

Vasilyev continues to insist that something is rotten inside the Russian Museum. On 12 July 2012, he wrote to Russian minister of culture Vladimir Medinsky, calling for an investigation into the control of access to the museum repositories. In August 2012, inspectors from the Ministry of Culture allegedly visited the Russian Museum, but found nothing wrong.

Andrei Vasilyev is now demanding an audit of the entire body of works awarded to the Russian Museum by the family of Boris Okunev. On 6 February 2014, he made the explosive claim in a live television interview that other paintings from the Okunev collection had appeared on the market.

Vasilyev alleged that Pavel Filonov’s Hunters was sold “sometime after 1983” and was now in a “well-known St Petersburg collection,” adding, “I know who sold it – and you can guess too.” He also claimed that Leonid Shumakov had once offered him a work by Vladimir Lebedev from the Okunev collection. Whether any of this is true remains to be seen.

Which Is the Forgery and Where is the Original?

When a work of art is forged, it coincides exactly with the original in size, colour scheme, compositional proportions and the details of the drawing. This is not so in the case of Andrei Vasilyev’s gouache and the work in the Russian Museum – so all claims that the former was copied from the latter are false.

The two paintings differ markedly in size. Vasilyev’s work is 62.2 x 79.7 cm, while the museum work is smaller at 53.3 x 70.7 cm. Judging by the published reproductions, their colour schemes are different (true, the museum work has been restored, making it look brighter). Finally, the two works also differ in the proportions of their compositions and the graphic details.

Even if Vasilyev’s gouache is a forgery, the different dimensions suggest that it was made by someone who did not have access to the work in the Russian Museum. This lifts suspicion from anyone inside the museum, who would surely have created a work of the exact same size. So it is wrong to call Vasilyev’s work a “copy” of the painting in the Russian Museum.

The gouache in the Russian Museum similarly differs in the compositional proportions from the 1914 reproduction. This explains why the museum described Parisian Café as a “version” of In a Restaurant in the exhibition catalogues of 1986 and 2011. Whatever its authenticity, the museum work is not the original of Vasilyev’s work.

Andrei Vasilyev’s gouache has a detailed underdrawing, which is not present in Parisian Café from the Russian Museum. This makes clear, beyond any doubt, that Vasilyev’s gouache was not copied from the museum work. The presence of an underdrawing also means that Vasilyev’s work cannot have been copied from the 1914 reproduction either.

All this suggests that we are dealing with three different paintings. There must be the original, which was reproduced in 1914 and used at a later date to make two different copies. One was bought by Boris Okunev in an antique shop in 1946 and entered the Russian Museum in 1984. The other was acquired by Andrei Vasilyev from Leonid Shumakov in 2009.

So where is the original gouache by Boris Grigoriev and what is its true provenance? There are rumours that the original work is in a private collection, but there is no direct confirmation of this. An alternative theory is that Grigoriev himself made a copy of In a Restaurant in the 1910s, before leaving Russia, but this does not seem likely.

Like most artists, Boris Grigoriev was not in the habit of repeating his own works. He only did so on one occasion, in the case of Old Paris (1913), when he made significant changes to the original. Andrei Vasilyev even acquired Grigoriev’s own copy of My Journal for the Few from 1914. The pages contain the artist’s notes and comments on misprints and mistakes, but nothing whatsoever about any versions, copies or repetitions.

Was Basner Set Up?

What is particularly striking about this case is the differences of opinion. Such experienced scholars as Elena Basner and Yulia Solonovich of the Russian Museum insist that Vasilyev’s work is genuine. Yet another top expert, Yulia Rybakova, claims to have been immediately struck by the poor quality of the work she examined at the Igor Grabar Restoration Centre.

They seem to be talking about two different paintings. So could this be what they really are? Is this the key to the whole mystery? Did the forgers first attempt to test the fake painting at the Igor Grabar Restoration Centre? And did they then show the original gouache to Elena Basner – before switching the works and selling the forgery to Andrei Vasilyev?

One possible way to test this theory is to compare the photograph of the work in Basner’s apartment with a photograph of the work now in Vasilyev’s possession. But if the paintings were switched, what was the ultimate aim? To swindle Andrei Vasilyev? Or to set up Elena Basner?

Was the ultimate aim to show the art expert a genuine painting, in order to secure her confirmation of its authenticity – before deliberately selling a work which had already been declared a forgery? If so, what was the reason for this scheme to frame Elena Basner?

Who Are Basner’s Enemies?

Elena Basner is a brilliant scholar and researcher, whose international standing and academic excellence have aroused the envy of less talented colleagues. She worked at the Russian Museum from 1978 until 2003, when she felt obliged to leave following a series of professional disagreements with her immediate superiors.

During her twenty-five years at the Russian Museum, Basner curated the world’s largest collection of Russian avant-garde painting, including 101 canvases by Kazimir Malevich. In 2008, Malevich became one of the world’s most expensive artists, when Suprematist Composition (1916) was sold at a Sotheby’s auction in New York for $60 million.

Elena Basner was responsible for the complete redating of many of Malevich’s paintings. In 1999, she successfully defended a dissertation in which she showed that the artist had deliberately falsified a large part of his oeuvre, pretending that many works actually painted in the late 1920s or early 1930s had supposedly been created much earlier, in the 1900s or 1910s.

Elena Basner’s redatings radically altered the context of Malevich’s central works and overturned the established views on one of the leading artists of the twentieth century. Basner’s new and convincing chronology of Malevich’s oeuvre embarrassed many so-called “experts,” who never suspected that the artist had falsely dated his own paintings.

It is interesting to compare the different reactions of the Hermitage Museum and the Russian Museum to the arrest of Elena Basner. On 4 February 2014, the same day that Hermitage director Mikhail Piotrovsky publicly condemned Basner’s imprisonment, the Russian Museum issued a vindictive press release washing its hands of its former employee.

Although the malicious text was released by the press office, it can only have been written at the highest level. The statement read: “Elena Veniaminovna Basner has not worked at the Russian Museum since 2003 and never held the status of an expert, let alone an expert of international standing. She has not been connected with the museum in any way since 2003 and the museum bears no responsibility for her actions.”

A week later, deputy director Yevgenia Petrova spoke similar words in an interview with Novaya Gazeta: “We parted company with Elena Basner in 2003, she left at her own desire – we had differences of opinion regarding the creative freedom of the research assistants of the Russian Museum, that is all I will say on the matter. But ... she was never an expert of the Russian Museum, we do not even have such a position.”

Elena Basner has also amassed enemies in the commercial world, where she threatens to crash the multi-million-dollar market in forged paintings. In 2008, she invented and patented a radiocarbon method, which can uncover one vital piece of evidence – whether a work of art was painted before or after the end of the Second World War.

Basner’s method is based on the fact that two new radioactive isotopes were released into the atmosphere following the first American atomic tests and bombings of Japanese cities in 1945. These isotopes – caesium-137 and strontium-90 – then found their way into plants, including flax. The seeds of the flax plant are used to make linseed oil, which is a pigment binder in oil paints.

Caesium-137 and strontium-90 were not present in oil paints before 1945. This means that any work from the periods most targeted by Russian counterfeiters – the realism of the late nineteenth century or the avant-garde of the early twentieth centuries – can now be tested for the presence of these isotopes. If they are found, the painting is a forgery.

Elena Basner’s invention threatens to put an end to an enormously lucrative business. As The Moscow Times reported in August 2013, at least half of the items on Russia’s antiques market are fakes. The isotope method will also lead to much embarrassment, bringing to light all the forged paintings now hanging on the walls of presidents, ministers, billionaire businessmen and multinational corporations.

Immediately after Basner’s arrest, parallels were drawn with the Magnitsky case. Mikhail Slobodinsky of Rusnano declared: “She is in prison because her invention has thwarted swindlers and criminals... to define a forgery knocked up after 1945 has now become a matter of ten minutes... [This is] a terrible threat to the market of fakes – an enormous market, a criminal market.”

In an interview on Radio Sweden following Basner’s arrest, Bukowskis spokeswoman Paulina Sokolow followed a similar line of thought: “We know that she has accumulated many enemies because of her wide knowledge... We know that she is one of the world’s top experts on forgeries. And we see the logic in these fabricated charges.” Bukowskis is convinced that their employee is the victim of a deliberate plot.

Elena Basner said as much in an interview given during her court appearance on 5 February 2014. When asked her opinion of the case, the art historian stated: “I have become the victim of some unpleasant, dark business which I myself do not understand.” She added: “This world, which is called the ?art business,’ is very cruel, dirty, vindictive and flagrantly corrupt... I hate it and it has repaid me in kind.”

Conclusion: A World Back to Front

Elena Basner is a major expert on the Russian Futurists and the name of this article, Worldbackwards, is the title of one of their first lithographed publications. The Futurists engaged in loopy artistic and literary experiments, designed to turn the world on its head or set it back to front. In 1913, a group of Russian Futurists even photographed themselves in an upside-down world.

Worldbackwards is also the perfect description for the topsy-turvy world of Russian justice a hundred years later. In 2014, a 58-year-old art historian, a woman in relatively poor health, was first imprisoned in a remand centre and then kept under house arrest for an entire year – despite presenting no possible threat to society.

How ironic that Elena Basner was put in prison by Russia’s top investigator, Alexander Bastrykin, who has secretly acquired real estate in Europe – in direct contravention of Russian law. Like so many other public figures in modern Russia, Bastrykin has also been accused of the academic crime of plagiarism (lifting entire chapters from the works of Anthony Summers and Jürgen Thorwald for his own books).

Contrast this with Elena Basner’s brilliantly written and meticulously researched books and articles on Kazimir Malevich, Natalia Goncharova, David Burliuk and other stars of Russian art and culture. Basner’s writings have uncovered a wealth of previously unknown information and, in the case of Malevich, overturned all that we thought we knew about the artist.

Elena Basner is a consummate professional and to describe her as “honest as the day is long” is an understatement. She is the last person on earth to engage in anything illegal – let alone anything that would besmirch her international reputation as an acclaimed expert on Russian art.

The ultimate illogicality is that, through her isotope method to uncover forged paintings, Elena Basner has done more than anyone to fight criminal activities in the art world. In her academic research, she has also cast doubt on the dubious attributions and datings of less principled colleagues.

Just as Worldbackwards was a deliberately gauche, handmade publication, so does the case against Elena Basner also seem “handmade” – with the hands of some malevolent ill-wishers all over it. Whose hands are those? Jealous rivals? The Russian “art mafia”? An unholy alliance of the two? The answer probably lies in the question: who benefits from Basner’s imprisonment and professional disgrace?

In a letter to his wife, Boris Grigoriev once spoke of the commercialisation of the art world: “Now is the age of commerce, and we have such a wonderful product.” Elena Basner touched on the same subject at the end of an interview given in court on 5 February 2014: “This world, where an object of art becomes an object of commerce, is repulsive. And one has to be very careful. Let this be an example.”

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