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The Renowned German Artist Who May Not Exist

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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An elaborate scam -- or call it a postmodern art project -- is coming to an end in Germany. Kunsthaus Dresden, the city's contemporary art gallery, has removed works by an artist named Karl Waldmann after the police announced it was investigating whether there ever was anyone with that name.

Waldmann,  according to his biography on the website of the virtual "Waldmann Museum," was a German-born Dadaist who never exhibited any of his work and "disappeared" in 1958. A French journalist supposedly acquired all of his known oeuvre -- more than 1,000 works -- in a flea market in Berlin in 1989. The "rediscovered" collages in a style reminiscent of the Russian avant-garde artist El Lissitzky or the German Karl Hermann Trinkaus, have since wound up at auctions, in private collections and in group exhibitions in various European countries. "Boundary Objects" -- the show at Kunsthaus Dresden -- is supported by government grants, and has traveled to South Africa and Benin.

Late last month, the journalist Thomas Steinfeld wrote in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung that Waldmann probably was an invention. No references to the artist can be found during his alleged lifetime, and none of the curators who have selected Waldmann's works for their exhibitions have had any idea of the collages' true provenance. Chemical analysis of the paper used in the collages has found chemicals that could only have been used since the 1940s, although the works' style is firmly fixed in the first 30 years of the 20th century.

The only source of information about Waldmann is the Belgian art dealer Pascal Polar, who has been selling works signed KW for 10,000 euros ($11,100) to 20,000 euros. He insists Waldmann existed and expresses bewilderment at the interest German police have shown in the matter. 

Indeed, this could be a victimless crime. Even if Waldmann never existed, the collages are not exactly fakes. They are anonymous creations that people buy because they like them --- but more likely, because they are good conversation starters: a mysterious artist, echoes of Russian and German totalitarian pasts, Dadaism, Bauhaus. These are stories Polar is good as spinning; even Steinfeld was impressed. "The art dealer projected more pictures onto the screen," he wrote, "and never ceased to praise the richness of political allusions they contained. They led deep into the innards of the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich and Stalinism." 

If Waldmann is a fake, how is he different from, say, Charles Rosenthal, the little-known painter invented by the Russian artist Ilya Kabakov to illustrate the path painting followed in the early 20th century? Kabakov supplied the fictional Rosenthal with a much more detailed biography than Waldmann's. He gave him a birth date, a family (Rosenthal's father supposedly owned a photo studio in Kherson, Ukraine), made him a student of Marc Chagall, had him move to Paris and then killed him off in a car crash in 1933, the year Kabakov himself was born.

Perhaps Kabakov was too vain to maintain the illusion that he was just the curator: It was no secret he had created the paintings. The Waldmann legend's creator went further, perhaps because he or she wasn't as well-known as Kabakov and because the purpose was to make a few bucks, not demonstrate a split artistic personality and pay an ironic tribute to the history of art. 

A fictional Dadaist is also a bit like Claire Fontaine -- the creation of a Paris collective named after a French notebook brand and meant to mock "the political impotence and the crisis of singularity that seem to define contemporary art today," or even like Banksy, the famous and ubiquitous street artist who may be a group of people hiding behind an oblique name.

If Waldmann is exposed as a fake, the middling collages, slapped together in a few minutes by some Bauhaus lover and sold for far more than they could be worth, won't be the best artistic creation in this story. That will be the story itself -- one about lazily constructed mysteries and nonexistent hidden meanings propelling some rather unimpressive images into the glamorous world of exhibitions, galleries and auctions. Whatever happens next, Waldmann is an art phenomenon. I won't be surprised if his works keep selling even if the police investigation proves he never existed.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net