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  THE ISSUE OF FORGERIES IN JEAN POUGNY'S OEUVRE РУ DE EN

Like any famous artist's oeuvre, Pougny's oeuvre has not escaped the attention of forgers. However, there are reasons that make his case special.

Pougny's works from the French period are rarely forged: the artist created quite a lot of them (over a thousand), so their prices are not as high as those of the early ones; in addition, they are not so easy to forge. But rare avant-garde pieces from the St-Petersburg period (Cubo-Futurist, Suprematist, Lettrist), if you are lucky, can be sold for millions, and they are relatively simple, or seem to be simple in manufacturing.

All Pougny knockoffs can be categorised into two large groups.
Forgeries of the first kind are common forgeries for profit, made by fraudsters using hired anonymous artisans. Such forgeries began to appear on the market in the 1960s after the world's interest in the Russian avant-garde increased, and the prices rose respectively. It was during these years that Xenia Boguslavskaya, Pougny's widow, organised his museum retrospective exhibitions one after another. However, if in the period before the collapse of the USSR cases of forgeries were isolated, in the 1990s the art market was literally flooded with things stylised as Russian avant-garde and signed "Puni", as well as "Klyun", "Goncharova", "Rozanova", etc. A typical example of such pseudo-Puni is the four items from the Ludwig Museum, which entered the Ludwig collection in 1993 with Berninger certificates.
Four pseudo-Punis from the Ludwig Museum, which entered the Ludwig collection in 1993 with Berninger certificates. A technological examination published by the museum in 2020 refuted Puni's authorship

Here we come to the circumstances that distinguish the Pougny forgeries from others. These circumstances are connected with the names of Xenia Boguslavskaya and Herman Berninger. Xenia Boguslavskaya is the wife, faithful companion and personal manager of Jean Pougny, she devoted her life to support of her husband, and after his death - to popularisation of his oeuvre. Herman Berninger was a mono-collector of Pougny, who received a part of his archive from Xana.

Berninger published two volumes of the Pougny's catalogue raisonné (the first volume in 1972, the second twenty years later in 1992), and then suddenly began to massively acquire forgeries of his early paintings and to supply these pseudo-Punis with his certificates of authenticity. Most likely, the elderly collector (he was 81 in 1992) was sincerely deluded. John Bowlt recalls that Berninger gave the impression of a man of honesty and sincerity who was dazzled by the sudden opportunity to add to his collection and, with the help of an art historian (more on this see in the article by Hubertus Gassner) began acquiring forgeries, and did so, convinced that the paintings are genuine. Berninger loved the later art of Pougny, while his earlier art seems to have remained incomprehensible to him. The sad apotheosis of Herman Berninger's activities was the exhibition he organised in 2003 in Basel, where, among others, 26 fake "signboards" were displayed, and the catalogue recounted the amazing legend of their creation:
«...After Lunacharsky appointed Puni as a professor at the reformed Academy of Arts, he had to put his skills at the service of society to design establishments: carpenter's shop, pharmacy, musical instrument shop, tobacconist's shop, gambling establishment, spice shop, watchmaker's shop, gunsmith's shop, etc.... These works were commissioned by the Ministry of Culture, which provided canvases, boards and paints for this purpose, paid the artist through the Academy of Arts in money and in kind, and then took possession of the completed works.... After the ban on all avant-garde works, announced by Stalin in the 20s, these unique signboards, which had contributed so much to the renewal of the city's appearance, were put away in closed vaults...»

The items certified by Berninger (among which, of course, were genuine ones) partly ended up in a number of private and museum collections, and partly continue to emerge on the art market.

Examples of pseudo-Puni from the "Iwan Puni Archive, Zürich" of Herman Berninger. Photos from the catalogue of the 2003 exhibition in Basel (0,10 Iwan Puni. Werke aus der Sammlung Herman Berninger, Zürich und Fotografien der russischen Revolution aus der Sammlung Ruth und Peter Herzog, Basel. Ausstellungskatalog Museum Jean Tinguely, 2003)

Xenia Boguslavskaya (1892-1972) played a less odious but no less dramatic role. She made it her life's work to promote Pougny's work: she organised his exhibitions, donated his works to museums, sold them to private and museum collections, printed reproductions. She wanted to present her husband's work in its fullness and splendour, but a problem stood in her way: Most of Pougny's early works remained in Russia. Xana made every effort to get to them, but was forced to realise that many of the early pieces were either inaccessible or lost. Then she made the bold decision to restore at least something on her own. Thus came a series of reliefs, gouaches and linocuts. Xana would have no complaints if she had signed her reconstructions frankly with her own name and date. But she preferred to attribute them retroactively to her husband, apparently believing that as a professional and like-minded artist she was able to reconstruct his works completely and indistinguishably. Compared to the crude forgeries of the first kind, these items retain the author's manner, are characterised by a higher level of execution and are often difficult to identify. Perhaps one should not even call them forgeries, as they are essentially reconstructions or reproductions authorised by the artist's wife.

  Advice on the authenticity of Jean Pougny's works

There is a well-founded opinion in the expert community that of all the works of the Russian avant-garde that entered the art market after 1990, more than 90 per cent were forgeries; see, for example, the proceedings of the symposium and exhibition "The Russian Avant-Garde at the Ludwig Museum: Original and Fake" (2020). This is fully true also for the items attributed to the early (pre-1923) Pougny. With such a concentration of forgeries, there can be no question of a presumption of authenticity - that is, by default, it is reasonable to assume a piece to be a forgery, and to consider its authenticity to be proven only if there are strong arguments.

Interested parties can consult the website for advice on the authenticity of Jean Pougny's works. The assessment of whether a work is authentic is made on the basis of a set of criteria including, first of all, provenance and conformity to the author's style (historical and art historical expertise). Knowledge of the author's style is achieved by long-term study of the artist's works, his creative evolution, biography, lifetime exhibitions and publications.
Our experience shows that in most cases the level of Pougny forgeries is such that no technological expertise is required to identify them, historical and art history expertise is sufficient.

The identification of reconstructions/reproductions authorised by the artist's widow requires in-depth knowledge of the historical context. In some cases, doubts cannot be resolved without examining the age of the materials, in which case technological expertise may additionally be required to reach a definitive conclusion.

Like any expert conclusion, our advice reflects the opinion of an expert, does not purport to be the absolute truth and is probabilistic in nature.
100% probability of authenticity corresponds to the expert's full confidence in the authenticity of the work, while zero probability corresponds to full confidence that it is a forgery; intermediate values reflect the degree of doubt about authorship, uncertainty of origin, etc.