Usually when one brings up the subject of art smuggling, China’s Cultural Revolution or ex-Nazi hoarders come up into conversation. But over the course of the past few days, news has been coming out of Russia that reveals some major art smuggling coming from one of Russia’s state galleries. The Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow is now under investigation for its employees partaking in smuggling Russian masterworks to foreign collectors.
This was all uncovered when five paintings were found in the baggage of a man going through customs at a Moscow airport. The man claimed that the paintings were only worth 180,000 rubles, or $3,600. According to Russian customs laws, any painting that is one hundred years old or less can be exported. The man’s customs documents corroborated this, however these documents were found to be faked, and experts appraised the confiscated paintings at around 1.9 million rubles, or $38,000. Among the five paintings was one by Valentin Serov, whose Portrait of Maria Zetlin sold in November 2014 for $14.5 million at Christie’s London. It was later deduced that employees at the Tretyakov Gallery might be behind the false documentation. Russian authorities speculate that experts at the Tretyakov have been appraising Russian masterpieces at extremely low prices, smuggling them out of Russia and selling them off to foreign collectors, such as Alfred Koch, who served as an economist for the Russian government and became a critic of Vladimir Putin, but fled to Germany to escape persecution from Putin’s administration.
Also among the paintings confiscated at the Moscow airport was a signed work by Pyotr Konchalovsky, whose works were banned from being exported by the State Galleries in Russia. The maximum sentence for the smuggler caught at the airport is seven years. Russia’s Investigative Committee and Ministry of Culture are conducting thorough investigations and have yet to release more information about the case.