COLOGNE, Germany — Museums don’t usually advertise fakes in their collections. But the Museum Ludwig here is exposing them to public scrutiny in a taboo-breaking new exhibition.
The paintings on show in “Russian Avant-Garde at the Museum Ludwig: Original and Fake” are all ostensibly by artists from that radical movement of the early 20th century. Yet displayed alongside bona fide works by renowned artists like Kazimir Malevich, Alexander Rodchenko and Natalia Goncharova are paintings whose previous attributions museum researchers now reject.
A tide of fakes has polluted this corner of the art market for decades, and the exhibition sheds new light on the pitfalls of buying, selling and collecting Russian avant-garde art.
The museum, founded by an endowment from the chocolate magnate Peter Ludwig in the 1970s, is known for holding one of the largest collections of Russian avant-garde art in Western Europe. Mr. Ludwig and his wife, Irene, were avid collectors of the style, and when she died in 2010, she left the museum a bequest of about 600 Russian avant-garde works.
Those included 100 paintings, and researchers at the museum have since been analyzing them. Of the 49 paintings investigated so far, 22 were falsely attributed, the researchers say, though they avoid describing them as “forgeries”: From a legal perspective, the word implies an intent to deceive that cannot be proven just by examining the work.
The show, which began on Saturday and runs through Jan. 3, was already the subject of a court dispute before it even opened.
In August, Galerie Gmurzynska, a Swiss gallery that sold about 400 paintings to the Ludwigs, filed a lawsuit demanding that the museum make its research available before the opening. A regional court rejected the case last week after the city of Cologne, which owns the museum, appealed an earlier ruling in the gallery’s favor.
While several works displayed in the exhibition as false attributions were purchased from Galerie Gmurzynska (which also has a presence in New York), so were some that the museum has affirmed as authentic. The gallery’s owner, Krystyna Gmurzynska, said in an interview that it was unfair for the exhibition to open before the research could be properly scrutinized.
She said her gallery had “worked with the most renowned experts of the Russian avant-garde,” adding: “We would like a bit of respect for what we have achieved over 55 years. It can of course be that experts made mistakes over the years, but we can’t judge that without seeing the technical reports.”
Rita Kersting, the deputy director of the Museum Ludwig and one of the curators of the show, said she hoped the museum’s investigation would help guide other institutions and collectors in assessing the authenticity of their works.
“We are open to scholarly contributions and new findings,” she said. “The research is never finished.”
In the past, assessments of Russian avant-garde art relied heavily on the opinions of connoisseurs. But investigating whether a painting matches an artist’s other works is only one part of the Museum Ludwig’s research. A second aspect is examining the work’s ownership history, and a third is laboratory analysis.
The museum’s scientific team, led by the conservator Petra Mandt, used techniques including infrared, ultraviolet and X-ray tests, microscope examination, chemical analysis and carbon dating.
The researchers applied these techniques to works including a painting attributed to Olga Rozanova that Mr. Ludwig bought from Galerie Gmurzynska in 1985. The Cubist-style painting dated 1913, “Landscape (Decomposition of Forms),” is displayed in the exhibition alongside a similar work by Rozanova on loan from the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, a 1913 canvas called “Man in the Street (Analysis of Volumes).”
Examinations of the Museum Ludwig’s painting revealed that the material on which it is mounted contains synthetic polyester fibers that did not exist in 1913. The pigments’ chemical composition was also different from those in other Roznova works of the period. The researchers concluded that the Museum Ludwig work is a later copy by an unknown artist.
Ms. Gmurzynska said she couldn’t comment on this conclusion without viewing the laboratory results. “We don’t have the technical reports, so we can’t judge,” she said. “It is not new that the painting has parallels to the one at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum.”
But what had angered her, she said, was the use of the word fake in the exhibition title. “They are trying to push the Russian avant-garde into a dirty corner,” she said. “This is absolutely unworthy and unprofessional.”
The troubles are rooted in Russian history. In the 1920s, artists of the avant-garde faced censorship in the Soviet Union. By the ’30s, when Stalin had cemented his power through brutal political repression, their works were removed from public display and hidden.
A market for artwork smuggled out of the U.S.S.R. began to develop in the West in the 1960s, but because it was illegal to show them, the works often lacked documents proving their provenance.
“In such conditions, forgers could operate practically unfettered,” Konstantin Akinsha, the director of the privately funded Russian Avant-Garde Research Project, wrote in the exhibition catalog.
The stakes in the market are high. In 2008, a painting by Malevich fetched $60 million at Sotheby’s. And Goncharova is one of the most expensive female artists at auction — the same year, one of her works sold for almost $11 million at Christie’s.
Yet a series of scandals in recent years has highlighted the dangers for buyers. In the most prominent, the Ghent Museum of Fine Art shut down an exhibition of Russian avant-garde art in 2018 after dealers and scholars described pieces on show as “highly questionable.” The museum director resigned, and the Belgian police are still investigating.
Ms. Kersting and Ms. Mandt said they had received overwhelming support from other institutions for the exhibition in Cologne.
“It was my big worry that we would get rejections to our loan requests” Ms. Mandt said. “I was amazed, because it was the exact opposite. That shows there is a real tide change: People are willing to openly broach a subject that has been taboo until now.”
Both the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum and the MOMus contemporary art museum in Thessaloniki, Greece, have lent original works to be shown alongside later imitations. The Busch-Reisinger Museum, one of the Harvard Art Museums in Cambridge, Mass., conducted laboratory analysis of its own Lissitzky masterpiece, “Proun 12E,” so that the Cologne researchers could compare the findings with a work in the Museum Ludwig’s collection that is now considered a copy.
Lynette Roth, the head of modern and contemporary art at the Busch-Reisinger, said that she had wanted to loan the work, but that logistical difficulties caused by the pandemic meant it couldn’t be shipped to Cologne.
“It’s an incredibly important exhibition and a step towards greater public transparency,” Ms. Roth said. “It’s exactly the kind of thing we love as a university museum. It pushes the scholarship forward.”
Even the fakes could be useful “as a point of reference and for educational purposes,” said Yilmaz Dziewior, the Museum Ludwig’s director. The museum will retain all of the misattributed works in its collection, he said, though they will not be displayed publicly once the current show finishes.
Ms. Kersting said the exhibition showed that the Museum Ludwig was taking responsibility for the integrity of its collection and acting to protect the artists’ work in a market swamped with fakes.
“There are a lot of experts in this field who represent different vested interests,” she said. “Museums are the right institutions to be advancing this research, because for us it’s about scholarship, not commercial interests.”