My Dear Piotrovsky –
We seem to have established a worthwhile dialogue, despite the Hermitage’s lofty silence and its failure to refute my charges about the fakes in its Fabergé exhibition. Although this silence is shared by your P.A. Maria Haltunen (whom I keep asking to bring my proposals and considerations to your attention), our dialogue continues to flourish – because you continue to polemicize with me in public, if not personally. I refer, in particular, to your opening remarks on the last day of the conference on Jewellery and Material Culture at the Hermitage on March 4.
IVANOV’S GOLDEN TOUCH
When opening the conference, you pompously declared that it exemplified ‘a scientific and academic museum approach to jewellery issues.’ Fabergé was playfully compared to the Caucasus, with both attracting crooks and intrigue. I sincerely hope that whoever churned out the fakes in you ‘Fabergé’ exhibition has not turned his or her attention to the cultural heritage of the Caucasus. Does a ‘scientific and academic approach’ really consist of presenting fakes to the public in the hope that gullible visitors won’t twig what’s going on? Any troublesome expert kicking up a fuss can be safely ignored – just as you are ignoring my arguments right now.
Another approach has been to create an impression of frenzied activity by installing showcases containing acknowledged fakes – which you did in early March 2021, even though the exhibition had opened back in November 2020! In my previous letter I expressed my admiration for this adroit initiative of yours as, once the current scandal has died down, you will be able to rebut criticism by saying Yes, of course there were fakes in the exhibition – displayed in a separate showcase as a spicy addition! You’ll do all you can to ensure no one recalls that most of the fakes were not labelled as such but presented as originals… in the official catalogue published by Hermitage!
Why have you not invited recognized Fabergé experts to act as consultants, like Tatyana Muntyan from the Kremlin Armoury? There are plenty of foreign Fabergé experts, too (who, I would like to point out, support my views and not those of your protégé Ivanov). You could have invited any expert with an untarnished reputation. As you keep saying: you personally decided to hold the current Fabergé exhibition and the one held in 1993; you are ‘acquainted with all the serious Fabergé scholars’; and you are on the board of the Fabergé Museum in St Petersburg, with which the Hermitage has a ‘very good working relationship.’ Nobody would have turned you down! Yet you refused to entertain the idea.
Yes, there may be problems with specialists, but in a civilized world these can easily be sorted out. The big Fabergé show due to open this November at the Victoria & Albert Museum, for instance, has hired an independent professional curator specifically to select exhibits, check on their provenance and authenticity, and personally guarantee the exhibition’s quality.
The Hermitage, however, spurns the help of professionals, even when freely offered. You pooh-poohed Professor Plechov when he warned you about fakes in the Ivanov Collection three years ago. You ignored the fact that your ‘Imperial Fabergé Tiara’ was bought at Christie’s for £74,500 six years ago – as just a 19th century tiara, without any reference to Fabergé or the Romanovs. Although I have explained the whole story of these ‘masterpieces’ in my article on the tiaras in your show, no one at your recent conference – neither yourself nor any member of your staff – uttered one word on the matter.
Was that because, in the skilled and energetic hands of Mr Ivanov, a mundane Christie’s tiara had been magically transformed into a ‘tiara by Carl Fabergé owned by Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna’? Mr Ivanov certainly has a Midas touch – one that turns everything he handles into a priceless piece of Fabergé. As those who believe in miracles like to say: so lucky, yet a free man!
OUR WAY IS THE INTELLIGENT WAY
But let’s get back to what you were prattling on about in your opening conference statement, about ‘the experience of studying the “new collections” in the exhibition… I should emphasize that we are talking of scientific research here, not “verification” or “expertise”.’
What ‘experience’, Mr Piotrovsky? Do you mean the experience of transforming fakes into supposedly bone fide items by exhibiting them in the Hermitage? Doesn’t expertise involve scientific research? And how can you investigate something without verifying it?
I believe everything is far simpler. You want to shroud a simple story – fakes being shown in a Hermitage exhibition – in verbal fog. You seem confident of sweeping the scandal under the carpet, and that keeping things quiet will ensure that neither the public nor the Russian Culture Ministry will realize how you and your pal Ivanov have disgraced the Hermitage and are in deep shit.
You claim that ‘a Hermitage commentary has been published several times, prompted by the great public interest. We were expecting a lot of interest but we hoped for an intelligent discussion with comparisons being drawn between the new pieces and well-known items in other collections.’
Now we come to the nitty-gritty. It turns out you knew about the fakes all along – but it was only ‘great public interest’ that made you discuss them! What do you mean by ‘intelligent discussion with comparisons being drawn with items from other collections’? You failed to invite the Kremlin Armoury, the Fersman Mineralogical Museum or the Fabergé Museum (where such ‘items of reference’ can be found) to take part in your exhibition or your conference. You ignored their experts and their opinions. Is that what you call ‘intelligent discussion’?
You like trotting out the word ‘intelligent.’ In your opinion, intelligence seems to mean not asking unpleasant questions or accusing you of deceit and fraud – and being ready to swallow any lie covered by the stamp of Hermitage approval and the illustrious Piotrovsky name. But what kind of ‘intelligence’ or basic professionalism can you possibly be talking about when you fail to answer a single journalist’s question at your conference? When the BBC’s correspondent asked you some questions, you fobbed him off with talk about chatting on-line. No meaningful answers were forthcoming from exhibition curator Tanya Baboshina, either.
But back to you, Mr Piotrovsky, and your intelligent reasoning about culture. What, pray, do you mean by the following? ‘The exhibition has been used as a pretext for a typical attack on the Hermitage.… A significant number of commentators understood the boorish nature of the attack and the presentation of an argument that had nothing to do with art. Others loudly joined the argument.’
I find it strange that no such ‘attacks’ have been launched on the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum, or any other front-line international museum… only on the ‘unfortunate’ Hermitage. Why should that be? Could it be because other museums check items and carry out examinations before putting them on display, whereas the Hermitage unleashes them on the public without listening to expert opinion or verifying suspect exhibits?
You call the attacks against the Hermitage ‘boorish’ and say they ‘have nothing to do with art.’ You doubtless hope to belittle such claims and trample them into the mud, hiding behind arguments about ‘intelligent’ discussions. But what do the authors of these claims care for your artful attempts to transform fakes into authentic items, like the squirrel pelts made from strangled cats in Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog?
When it comes to verbal fog, you take some beating. ‘The goal of the Hermitage,’ you declare, ‘was not just to display beautiful pieces but to draw attention to Fabergé as a cultural and historical phenomenon. The story of the House of Fabergé is about brand and style, about fashion and about aggressive marketing.… The opinions of participants in trade disputes are not seen by us as attacks but as another subject for research.… Part of the scientific solution of the problems is a careful study of the background of each object, which would be difficult without its presence in an exhibition… the context of the exhibition is especially important. In the setting of the imperial palace, comparison between exhibits leads to a consensus of opinions being developed – or not.’
For God’s sake, man, what on earth are you talking about? The ‘cultural and historical phenomenon of Fabergé’ has been widely studied for decades by many authoritative experts – whom you have ignored, preferring to rely on your buddy Ivanov. If ‘participants in trade disputes’ are an object of research, why don’t you involve anyone else apart from Mr Ivanov? Why don’t you respond to my accusations in particular? And what possible relevance can a palace setting have when it comes to authenticity? Does a cigarette case look different in a palace? Maybe you think so. Is that why Ivanov’s fakes have been allowed into the Hermitage – for the walls of the Tsars’ palace to launder his forgeries?
All of these are examples of your ‘intelligent discussion.’ In my opinion – the opinion of someone who puts his money where his mouth is on a daily basis (without hiding behind the authority of a world-renowned museum), this is not discussion at all. It is a smokescreen for you to divert attention from what’s really at stake: the Hermitage passing off fakes as originals. These examples of ‘intelligent discussion’ are shamanic ritual dances designed for the museum’s gullible and not very literate visitors. It seems you can count on the loyalty of Culture Ministry officials representatives and law-enforcement agencies.
NO SENSE OF HONOUR
‘In today’s world, attribution issues are discussed very carefully, as they are fraught with judicial consequences’ – as you told the conference. What weasel words, Mr Piotrovsky! They don’t mean that attribution issues should never be discussed openly or in public, but only behind closed doors (then shoved under the carpet). I know what I’m talking about: I’ve taken part in several court cases where the owners of bona fide originals have defended the truth, and the owners of fakes have had to admit their guilt.
No matter how complicated such cases may be, and no matter how aggressively lawyers defend the interests of their fake-owning clients, these painful questions need to be addressed– not left stewing in a verbal fog, trying to curry favour for all involved. That won’t work.
Yet the Hermitage, as you put it, is ‘always open to the discussion of sensitive issues… a readiness for non-standard discussions is our special style.’ As examples of such openness and sensitivity you cite Hermitage exhibitions devoted to Peter the Great & Charles XII, the Storming of the Winter Palace, Jan Fabre, the Chapman Brothers, and discussions about Leonardo’s Madonna Litta, ‘new’ works by Rubens and Degas’s posthumous bronzes.
Let me dwell on your words, Mr Piotrovsky. The discussion about the Degas bronzes in 2012, and the exhibition that followed 18 months later, both have much in common with your scandalous Fabergé exhibition. Not least because most leading international experts refused to take part in your international symposium about the questionable bronzes – including Sara Campbell from the Norton Simon Museum in California; Catherine Chevillot from the Rodin Museum in Paris; art critic Joseph S. Czestochowski; Anne Pingeot, former Curator of Sculpture at the Musée d’Orsay; and art historian Richard Kendall.
Despite their refusal to take part, precisely because they had no doubt the so-called ‘Degas bronzes’ were fakes, the Hermitage ignored them and went ahead with its exhibition of dubious sculptures. It seems you were already pioneering your brazen approach: ignore expert opinion, put fakes on display, and spit in everyone’s face – then, in the event of scandal, proudly declare that you had anticipated such ‘boorish attacks.’ Looks like it’s becoming a habit. Exactly why, I do not know. I would prefer not to think that financial incentives and corruption can possibly be linked to honest and professional museum activity.
‘So far we can say that many examples were made of the Soldier figurine and the study needs to make direct comparisons with other examples’ (I am quoting your next attempt to avoid giving straight answers to specific questions). ‘The Egg with its chicken seems to contain elements of different dates. Many replicas of this pieces are known and need to compared.’
Who says the Soldier figurine was replicated? Do you, Mr Piotrovsky? I thought you were an expert on Islamic Art. Or does Mr Ivanov – the man who secretly slipped this fake into a Hermitage showcase? I’ll let you in on a secret, Mr Piotrovsky: Fabergé figurines were never replicated. OK, there are two John Bull figurines, and two of a house-painter – but each is different, and can be traced back to the day it was made. The Soldier figurine that Mr Ivanov is passing off as original has zero provenance! Even you, Mr Piotrovsky, if you carefully examined both figurines, the real one and the fake – even you would immediately spot the difference between the master’s work, based on Savitsky’s magnificent design, and its clumsy imitation.
Not to mention the Imperial Easter Egg. Can this really be what you call a ‘replica’? Just imagine: after the Tsar had ordered a unique gift for his wife, Carl Fabergé flooded the market with copies! No other variants exist – however much Mr Ivanov would like to think so!
There do exist, however, people with no conscience or sense of honour, just as there exist world-famous museums happy to launder fakes. I had hoped these words would not need saying, Mr Piotrovsky. But – given your stubborn silence, your reluctance to engage in dialogue, and your support for Pseudo-Professor Ivanov – I hardly expect you to defend the cause of truth or the Hermitage’s good name.