What a difference a devaluation makes. In Russia's financial crisis of 1998, Vinogradov's Inkombank went under and he plummeted from his position of wealth and power. But the fallout from his crash, Russian art experts warn, may soon get worse. As the ruins of Vinogradov's old empire are hawked in an upcoming bankruptcy sale, one of the world's most famous paintings stands to be sold for a fraction of its value amid whispered allegations of kickbacks and shady private profits.
The canvas in question, one of four known variations of the Black Square, painted in the early part of the last century, would likely fetch at least $20 million at Sotheby's or Christie's. The last Malevich to be sold, Suprematist Composition, was auctioned in New York last May for $17 million. But soon the Vinogradov Black Square is to be sold in Russia for far lessperhaps as little as $2 million. Last month Alexander Yesin, manager of the bankruptcy sale, confirmed that indeed the painting will be auctioned in Russia. What he failed to say, but sources close to the Inkombank liquidation claim, is that in advance of the auction the bank's entire collection has been appraised at a mere $1.5 million.
Why? The press-shy officials at Russia's Ministry of Culture insist this is a matter of national heritage. Malevich's works must remain in their homeland, they say, arguing that the state would never grant an export license for any Malevich canvas. Perplexed Malevich experts at home and abroad, however, fear that a native mogul has cut a deal to buy the canvas on the cheap and then resell it to a foreign collector for a huge profit after bribing Culture Ministry officials to grant an export license or securing a legal move to lift the ban on exports. With three other Black Squares in Russian museums, they wonder, does the state desperately need a fourth? "The cries of saving Malevich for Russians are nonsense," says Konstantin Akinsha, a U.S.-based historian of Russian art. "This smells of greed and chicanery."
The shadowy maneuvers of Russia's unbridled market have long tainted its art world as well. Malevich works have left Russia beforeand have been sold abroad for handsome profits. But the sale of a Black Square, at such a flagrant discount, would mark a new low.
The painting's recent history is an apt parable of Russia's post-Soviet decade. In the early 1990s, seeking to burnish their image, the country's richest bankers turned to collecting art. "We encouraged them," says Georgi Nikich, a Moscow art critic who participated in Inkombank's acquisition of the Black Square. "Naively, we thought the works would be safer in their hands." Nikich recalls how he heard of this Black Square when he was running one of Moscow's first commercial art fairs. "A woman called up from Samara, claiming to have a Malevich. Of course, we all laughed." But when the head of the Samara branch of Inkombank called and said that relatives of Malevich were offering a Black Square, Nikich joined other experts in traveling to Samara to take a closer look.
The tale that ensued is worthy of Gogol. A man in his 20s and dressed in a track suit arrived at the bank carrying a bag. He apologized for being latehe had stopped off to buy fishing line. "But as soon as he opened that bag and unrolled the canvas, we felt the power of Malevich," says Nikich. Moscow's Tretyakov Gallery authenticated the painting and Inkombank bought it, paying a reported $250,000.
The Samara owners, distant relatives of the sister of the artist's widow, "just wanted to get rid of it," says another art historian who also saw the painting in Samara. For years, they had hidden it from banditsat one point in a kgb safe, at another in a crate of potatoes. They were convinced that whoever kept the painting met with misfortune, and with good reason: the young man who brought the canvas to the bank disappeared for days afterward only to resurface in a battered, confused state, the victim of a shakedown by racketeers.
The firesale of a Black Square should be scandal enough. But a host of other questions arise. There is, for instance, the question of the "other Maleviches." The bank's collection was formed in secrecy and has never been fully exhibited. But art historians who helped build it say it included two other Malevich paintings, realist portraits dating from the artist's last years, and a drawing called The Reapers. They say the bank also acquired an object resembling an Architecton, Malevich's name for his skyscraper-like sculptures. If authentic, the Architecton would be significantnone has ever been offered on the market. Culture Ministry officials refuse to discuss the whereabouts of these other works.
Vinogradov, at the height of his orbit, was ferried around Moscow in an armored convoy. His movements resembled military maneuvers. No more. He was spotted recently on a main Moscow thoroughfareon foot and alone. Malevich lovers, at home and abroad, now worry that the same fateobscurityawaits the most alluring gems of the fallen oligarch's treasure trove.