When is a forgery worth more than an original? As an estate representative my expertise was in the fine arts and over the years it has proven to be an exciting and unexpectedly adventuresome occupation. I have written about some of the larger pieces I’ve been fortunate to work with, and now it’s time for the smaller and less loved ones to surface. For one estate I’d sold off the paintings, the assorted small sculptures, and the prints, and all that was left were boxes of books and miscellaneous small items packed with the books.
A friend in Pasadena was a rare book dealer and he was the first person I approached. He came down and we spent an afternoon opening box after box of books; seems the last time the gentleman had moved he boxed the books and on arriving at his new home he didn’t bother to un-box them. We found an assortment of titles, authors, and in varied states and conditions. We made four stacks for the day; one was a donation stack of modern and contemporary titles that the local library could use or resale. The second short stack was what we called the investigation stack after a twenty-dollar bill fell out of an older text; we discovered over $100 in total cash later that afternoon.
The third stack was the value stack where my colleague placed those books that he wanted for his bookstore. Overall, it was a disappointment for both of us as few of the books were big finds. The last stack was the trash stack where the useless and severely damaged books were assembled. All that to write that in one of the last boxes opened were three objects wrapped in newspapers and plastic; objects that once unwrapped I could not get out of my mind. The first one was a carved and painted wooden Virgin Mary that was 14 inches high and easily more than 100 years old but she was in a fragile and sad state of affairs. Woodworms and bugs had riddled the whole thing and conservation was questionable.
She would later be donated to a private collector. The other two, more carefully wrapped and preserved objects, were traditional Russian OrthodoxMother and Child icons, one about 11 inches by 7 inches, and a smaller one about 7 inches by 4½ inches. These two smaller ‘classic’ icons showed the Mother and Child embracing, one of the most accepted and admired types of Russian religious icons with the design and arrangement being repeated thousands times throughout the ages.
Our Lady of Vladimir (12th century CE), the holy protectress of Russia, now in the Tretyakov Gallery, is a perfect example of the Eastern Orthodox traditions the two smaller icons were based on. When in doubt, turn to the experts. There was something about the icons that caught my eye, and yet something just wasn’t correct; something did not fit. When in doubt turn to the experts, and luckily in this case there was, at that time, an collector/expert in Russian icons living in the Hollywood Hills and I had the good fortune to have met him only months before. I called a mutual friend who knew him better to get the referral to call him personally. He took my phone call and we had an enjoyable conversation late one afternoon.
Ten days later I was invited to his house to see his collection of religious artifacts from Southern Europe and the Near East. A look but don’t touch collection I brought with me the two Russian icons to have him evaluate them for future sales with his imprint on the evaluations. He looked them over, briefly, sat them on his desk and then ignoring them, walked me through his amazing collection of art works. I was humbled to be in such a private collection. We went from room to room and as I remember it, each room was dedicated to a country or a time period.
There were Moorish objects from the South of Spain, Greek items from Southern Italy, Turkish and Persian objects were in the same room, and the largest room was dedicated to Egypt, Palestine and Lebanon. A look but don’t touch collection of jewelry, metal cups, ceramics, figurines and pieces of sculptures and pottery; a harbinger of the collection I was hoping to have for myself one day. After about an hour we stopped for coffee, strong coffee like the kind you have in Southern Europe.
We talked, or better, he talked and I listened. It was one of the most enjoyable afternoons in the life. Finally his wife came in and reminded him he had an appointment to go to. He walked me to the front door to leave, and I, in panic, exclaimed what about the icons? I’ll call you next week he said, as he politely escorted me out the front door.
Good news and bad news
A week passed with no phone call, and then two weeks passed, still no phone call. He had the icons and I had the questions. I could take no more; I called him. Here is where the story gets interesting. He hadn’t forgotten me he said; just he was busy preparing a lecture for a university in Israel, and it paid better. I accepted that. Then he proceeded to tell me he had good news and he had bad news, and which did I want to hear first. I said give me the bad news. He answered that the smaller icon was a forgery by a known historical forger who worked in the late 1790’s in South West Russia and who he identified by name. I knew from the owner’s receipt that he had paid four thousand dollars for the icon in the late 1960s in Venice.
I was sunk as I thought my fees for the resale just went out the window. OK I said, what is the good news. He answered that he had an offer of six thousand dollars for the small icon, and another three thousand dollar offer on the larger one. What, say that again, the small ‘forged’ icon has a six thousand dollar offer, how can that be? The forger was known and had an established reputation. In fact, the forger’s reputation was so widely known that he had become a collectable artist in his own right. It is believed that he did not copy the works by the contemporary definition of forgery; rather, he made replications for wealthy patrons who requested them.
At that point in time in the late 1790s and early 1800s, it was not illegal to make replications, and the historical Russian Orthodox tradition was to replicate as closely as possible the original wood panel icon paintings.