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Russian art dealers released after a year in jail without trial

Couple claim that forgery accusations were the result of a property deal gone sour

The art dealers Tatyana and Igor Preobrazhensky who have been held in a Moscow prison for a year accused of “large-scale fraud”, which carries a penalty of up to ten years in prison, were released in October without the case coming to trial.

The police said the couple had sold ten forgeries, including works purporting to be by Alexander Kiselyov (1838-1911), which were priced at more than $2m in total.

According to the police, the couple bought the works in Europe by little-known 19th-century European painters, and made changes which included removing the original artist’s name and replacing it with a Russian signature, thus greatly enhancing their value.

But as the police did not have enough evidence to take the case to court, they were obliged to release the couple. Russia does not have a bail system, and citizens can be held on remand for up to a year until the authorities conclude their investigations.

In the first interview following her release, Tatyana Preobrazhenskaya told The Art Newspaper that she and her husband had been framed. She said that the charges were the result of a property deal that went sour while she was looking for gallery space in Moscow.

According to Ms Preobrazhenskaya, a businessman and friend, Valery Uzzhin, offered her a space in March 2005, but she didn’t have the $2.3m asking price in cash. She says that in exchange for the gallery, Mr Uzzhin instead agreed to accept a downtown apartment she owned worth about $1m, $80,000 in cash, a Mercedes Benz and three paintings: Aivazovsky’s Clouds over a Calm Sea, 1891, and A View of Capri, which she said she bought at Stockholm’s Auktionsverk in December 2004 for SKr1.26m ($174,000) and SKr530,000 ($75,000) respectively; as well as Vladimir Makovsky’s Fly Catcher (Mukholov).

Shortly after, Ms Preobrazhenskaya says it emerged that Mr Uzzhin did not own the gallery and the deeds were forgeries, but despite this, he retained the money, the flat, the car and the art. At this point, Mr Uzzhin accused Ms Preobrazhenskaya of selling him fakes.

The Moscow prosecutors have never doubted the authenticity of the works by Aivazovsky and Vladimir Makovsky, two highly sought-after painters, but accused the couple of selling fakes by the little-known artist Kiselyov.

“The charges are false and there’s no evidence linking me to the sale of the so-called fakes to Mr Uzzhin,’’ says Ms Preobrazhenskaya. “I was framed, I was the victim.’’

Mr Uzzhin denies any charges of wrongdoing, through his lawyer, Yevgeny Martynov. “We don’t have the slightest doubt that the Preobrazhenskys are guilty. We insist that the police renew their investigation and are determined they be punished,’’ said Mr Martynov.

Regardless of the outcome, this case is raising serious issues among Russian art dealers. “This affair should concern all art dealers,’’ said one who wished to remain anonymous. “We are vulnerable to this type of fraud. It appears that anyone can come forward and accuse you of selling them a fake painting. And you’ll spend a year in prison while the police sort it out,” he said. The police were unavailable for comment.