Art law Market United Kingdom

Christie's “considering its options” after Russian painting setback

Judge orders auction house to refund £1.7m to buyer of Odalisque

The troublesome odalisque

Christie's is standing by its attribution of a painting to the Russian artist Boris Kustodiev, which is at the centre of a long-running authenticity battle after a judge in London ruled last week (28 July) that “the likelihood is that Odalisque was not painted by Kustodiev”.

Christie's was ordered to refund £1.7m to Aurora Fine Arts, a company owned by the Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg, which purchased the work in 2005. The judge cleared the auction house of claims of negligence and misrepresentation.

A spokesman for the auction house says: “We are surprised and disappointed,” adding that it stands by its attribution to Kustodiev. When asked whether the company would appeal he says it is “considering its options.”

The painting is dated 1919 and depicts a nude woman asleep. It is known to have been exhibited in Riga, Latvia, in 1932 and first sold at Christie's London salesroom for £19,000 in 1989. It was sold again by the auctioneer to Aurora Fine Arts in 2005. Doubts are thought to have been raised by an art dealer soon afterwards. By 2010, Aurora had filed its lawsuit.

During the 20-day hearing, Alisa Borisovna Lyubimova, a research fellow at the State Russian Museum, St Petersburg, said she was “almost 200% sure” that the work is not genuine. The judge also noted in his summing up that she would not change her view even if shown contemporary documents tending to suggest authenticity. Max Rutherston, who works as a consultant for Bonhams, argued that the quality of work by artists is not always consistently high and concluded that the painting was by Kustodiev's hand.

Archive material was presented, including research by Kustodiev's friend Vsevolod Voinov. His monograph of the artist's work notes a painting called Sleeping, 1919, which Christie's believes is the same work as Odalisque. Aurora, however, maintains that another list by Voinov refers to Sleeping as a drawing not a painting.

Debate during the hearing also focused on whether the signature on the work was contemporaneous with the rest of the painting.

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