Tom Goode, Managing Director of global art empire, Vitruvius, sits comfortably in the upstairs room of private members club, High Road House. His latest exhibition, ‘Silence: An Exploration in Noise’, produced by the unknown artists who make up the Vitruvius brand has just opened at the Tate Modern. The show is already sold out, following press attention which has bordered on the vitriolic.
“I’m going to let you in on one of the worst kept secrets in the art world,” says Tom, leaning forward conspiratorially. “Last year a forger died in Moscow. Young fellow, liked the drink a bit too much, didn’t do anything of note with his life. Who cares right?” Without waiting for a reply, he continues, “Well his mum cares and right now she’s in advanced talks for the rights to his diary. If she gets her way, soon a lot more people are going to care…”
Vladimir Stalanivof was born in 1980 and raised in a small town outside Moscow. From the moment he could pick up a pencil, he could draw. As a very young child he would do perfect illustrations of his family and pets. When he got to school he would supplement his pocket money by forging sick notes, bus tickets and attendance records. As he got older he became more proficient, drivers licenses and other identification posed no problem at all. By the time he was 15 he could do incredible copies of many of the great masters and everyone assumed he had a successful career as an artist ahead of him.
He got a place at a small Moscow art college and was ready for his bright future to begin. However, even though he could ape the graceful strokes of Van Gough, recreate the depth of Monet and knock out Picassos two at a time… when it came to a style of his own, he fell flat. This was the late 1990s and the idea of art as a concept was fully entrenched, even on a fine art course. Vladimir soon realised that whilst he had more technical abilities than the other students, there was something lifeless about his work.
At 19, the young artist met a girl in a local bar, after a brief relationship she became pregnant and he dropped out of college to take an uninspiring job in graphic design. Vladimir spent his days Photoshopping new artwork for dog food cans and cereal boxes. He hated his life and used his family as an excuse for not pursuing his artistic dream. He resented his wife and son, and they couldn’t stand the bitter man he was becoming. Every new art exhibition that hit the press riled him; interviews with the latest conceptual whippersnapper made his blood boil. Fuelled by drink and hatred, he would angrily rant his way through countless evenings; creating nothing himself and loathing those who did. Finally, just before his son turned 12, his wife and family left him.
This is when Vladimir hatched his plan. Alone and drunk one evening, he decided he would create the perfect forgery and use it to stick two fingers up at the art world. It would need to be small – no more than 20cm at its widest side and it would need to be housed somewhere he could get at it. The more famous the work or artist, the better. Motivated at last, Vladimir spent hours scouring the internet for the perfect candidate; it didn’t take him long to find it. Painted in oil on wood by one of the great masters, it was dated to the 1490s and owned by a small private gallery in New York. Vladimir estimated the painting must be worth in a excess of 15 million US dollars.
He spent the next six months feverishly studying, copying and perfecting. When he was finished slaving he was able to recreate the technique and appearance of the painting perfectly… but this was only half the battle. Now he had to turn this technique into something that looked, felt and smelled authentic. He visited galleries to identify the most likely match of colours and spent months sourcing the perfect materials to ensure his work would stand up to even the most extensive scrutiny. Under the guise of a holiday he travelled to Italy and stole oak panelling from a 15th century church; cut it, sanded it, then prepared it for painting using gypsum and glue he made from horse skin. He fashioned brushes from badger hair and spent hours painstakingly mixing and re-mixing paints utilising pine resin, frankincense, egg yolk and all manner of authentic pigments.
He was fired up with his process, constantly too wired for sleep. He lived and breathed the artist; studied every work he created and digested everything written about his life. When he could sleep, he was plagued by weird complicated dreams, and for a split-second when he awoke, truly believed himself to be a fifteenth century Florentine genius. Vladimir had never found a vision of his own, but now with a blueprint to aim for, he knew for the first time what it felt like to be creatively inspired. He knew what he wanted to achieve and it was a satisfying struggle to desperately try and bring it to life.
When his project was complete and framed in its perfect replica frame, it was a masterpiece. The imperfections, which absolutely mirrored the original, were magnificent; the tiny, beautifully crafted spots of wear and tear, a master-stroke. Vladimir had not felt such pride since he was seven years old and produced the photographic illustration of his sister’s pram, which still holds prime position in his parent’s living room. This picture, with its cracked paint and faintly old smell was truly something to boast about.
Vladimir boarded the plane to New York with the painting in his hand luggage, passed through customs without a hitch and checked into a small hotel near Time Square. The next part of the plan was equally straight forward. Vladimir bought a ticket for the exhibition and walked straight into the gallery with the painting in his bag. The place was not busy, as he calmly made his way through the halls to where the original painting hung. Once there, he simply swapped it for his copy and strode purposely out into the street. There were no alarms, no running guards and no gung-ho Americans with guns. On the pavement outside he couldn’t believe what he had done. His legs began to shake, the world started to recede, and for a moment he thought he might faint. He quickly pulled himself together, anxious to return to the hotel as quickly as possible and examine the picture, then he’d see just how good his version was.
His handiwork had been incredible. The colours were spot on. Squinting in the artificial light, he could see some of the age cracks diverged ever so slightly, but everything else was identical. Vladamir’s heart swelled with pride and once more he forgot he was Vladimir Stalanivof: 32-year old Russian forger, poor father, failed artist and border-line alcoholic; and in his mind, converged with the true master who created the work. The next day he flew back to Moscow taking the original painting with him. Nobody knew what had taken place. And though he scoured the internet for news of his handiwork, like the impervious blue background of the painting itself, the art world remained calm, unruffled and untroubled.
Seven days after he returned to Russia he went to a cafe in central Moscow and emailed his note to the gallery. He had intended to remain restrained, but once he began to lay out his thoughts, all his built up bitterness came tumbling out. He mocked and derided the security at the exhibition, lauded his brazen opportunism and laughed at the gallery for not noticing the substitution. He praised his own skills as an artist and demanded an enormous ransom to return the painting. In 24 hours the reply arrived. It was short, terse and indifferent… barely a few lines long. The message was plain: We don’t care about your painting, we can prove the provenance of ours.
Vladimir opened the email with a sense of elation, expecting a very different response. As he read and re-read the words he sank back down to earth. His painting was so close to the original that it didn’t matter that it wasn’t the original. He was in possession of a work that was worth millions of dollars, but in his hands it was worthless. His own painting – created by his own skill and ingenuity – was now worth a fortune. Sitting alone in his small squalid flat in South-East Moscow he began to drink and take pain killers. Examining the painting as he drank; he stared at the imperfections that he had perfected. The signs of age on the cracked old paint, the individual brush strokes, the confident signature. There was nothing left – all hope had gone.
Vladimir was not discovered until three weeks later, his body slumped over the painting. The local press ran the small headline: “32-year old forger found dead over his final copy.”