Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Viktor Vekselberg, one of the world’s richest men, paid £1.7 million for Odalisque, a nude said to be the work of Russian artist Boris Kustodiev.The price was 10 times the pre-sale estimate and represented the “pure absurdity” of the art market, the court heard.
Soon after the purchase in 2005, experts working for Mr Vekselberg’s arts fund, Aurora, began to cast doubt on the picture’s authenticity. They claimed that Kustodiev’s signature, dated 1919, was done in an aluminium-based pigment not available until after the artist’s death in 1927.
Mr Vekselberg sued Christie’s and today the judge ruled that he was entitled to recover the £1.7 million he paid for the painting. Christie’s must also pay around £1 million in costs.
Following a 20-day hearing, Mr Justice Newey dismissed allegations that Christie’s was negligent or that it misrepresented the painting.
However, he ruled: “I do not think certainty on the point is possible but my task is to determine authenticity on the balance of probabilities and the likelihood, in my view, is that Odalisque is the work of someone other than Kustodiev.
“It follows that Aurora is entitled to cancel its purchase and to recover the money paid for it.”
Christie’s said they were “surprised and disappointed” by the ruling.
A spokesman said: “We welcome the judge’s findings that Christie’s was not negligent. We are surprised and disappointed by his view of the painting’s attribution. We maintain our belief in the attribution to Kustodiev and are considering our options.”
Lawyers for Christie’s argued during the case that Odalisque had a “reliable provenance”, pointing out that the painting featured a distinctive chair known to have been owned by the painter. They also claimed that the pigment used in the signature was available in 1919, albeit not in common usage until the 1930s.
The painting was first sold by Christie’s in 1989 for £19,000, but by the time of the 2005 auction its pre-sale estimate had risen to £180,000-£220,000.
The final sale price of £1.7 million – for what one expert viewed as a “bread and butter picture” by the artist – came at the height of the economic boom. Natalia Kournikova, a Russian art collector who bid unsuccessfully for the painting, said the price was “pure absurdity”.
Christie’s claimed that the work was probably “painted to sell quickly” because the artist, then a wheelchair-bound invalid, was desperate for money and struggling to feed his family in post-revolutionary St Petersburg.
James Aldridge, for Christie’s, said: “It is not suggested that the painting is a masterpiece, but not every Kustodiev is a masterpiece.”
Mr Vekselberg, 56, an oil tycoon, is listed by Forbes magazine as the world’s 64th richest man with a fortune of more than £7 billion.
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