Hephaestus Features in the New BBC Documentary 'The Zaks Affair: Anatomy of a Fake Collection'

March 2024

Hundreds of Russian and Ukrainian avant-garde forgeries have been sold to private and public collections over the past twenty years as the BBC uncovers in a new documentary.

The Zaks Affair: Anatomy of a Fake Collection airs on BBC 4 on Monday 11 March, 9-10pm.
Giacomo, Researcher & Business Development Manager

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When Hephaestus was founded in 2018, our first commercial project involved analysing paintings from the Russian and Ukrainian avant-garde, a part of the art market plagued by forgery. While there are various reasons as to why there are so many forged Russian and Ukrainian avant-garde works, two reasons appear most often. Firstly, because of Soviet censorship and the inability for avant-garde works to be displayed until the dissolution of the USSR, many artworks, authentic and inauthentic, had no available documentation. Secondly, the simplicity of form and straightforwardness of facture is often the core essence of Russian and Ukrainian avant-garde pictures, although this point is perhaps less relevant in the context of discussing highly sophisticated forgers.

These notions, accompanied by the burgeoning market for Russian and Ukrainian avant-garde works in the West in the 1980s, laid fertile ground for forgers to exploit. The Association Alexandra Exter has aptly discussed this issue of ‘imaginary provenances’ and what might be referred to as ‘junk scientific reports’; pigment analysis reports used to prove the authenticity of artwork solely because there are no obviously anachronistic pigments.

The BBC Documentary ‘The Zaks Affair: Anatomy of a Fake Collection’ is yet another chapter in the story of Russian and Ukrainian avant-garde forgery and illustrates Hephaestus’ central positioning to take on the issues of forgery and misattribution in the art market. 

Hephaestus was approached by the BBC in 2021 to conduct a Pictology (AI) analysis of a painting attributed to El Lissitzky. As gallerist James Butterwick has often stated, a significant portion of the avant-garde market is fake, making data acquisition from both public and private sources difficult. It was vital to have the insight of key scholars, including that of Konstantin Akinsha, when acquiring a small dataset of bona fide, unquestioned paintings by El Lissitzky. Hephaestus had to develop its algorithms to operate on a relatively small dataset: all in all, we trained our algorithms on only 20 works and tested the efficacy of the model against a large number of forgeries before examining the painting from the Zaks Collection.

Pictology remains only one component of Hephaestus’ full authentication protocol which also includes scientific analysis, provenance research and connoisseurship. Integrating these traditionally fragmented components of art authentication, Hephaestus is the first - and only - company that can authenticate paintings and secure the authentication with an authenticity insurance product. However, our work with the BBC highlights how powerful, efficient, and cost-effective Pictology can be.

The Zaks Affair: Anatomy of a Fake Collection airs on BBC 4 on Monday 11 March, 9-10pm: watch live or on demand here. Also available worldwide on Youtube.

Hephaestus’ Art Authentication Protocol: 

01. Provenance: We research the ownership history of the artwork through documentary evidence, from its creation to current collection.

02. Connoisseurship: We consult with the leading specialists, art dealers, and academics to ensure the artwork is accepted by the market.

03. Chemical analysis: We conduct a carefully sequenced suite of scientific tests to verify that the age, process, and materials are consistent with the attribution.

04. Pictology: Our proprietary machine learning algorithms (AI) are trained on a carefully curated high-resolution dataset of bonafide, authentic artworks. Using high-resolution images captured from a medium-format camera, Pictology is trained on a homogenous data set with fixed variables. This eliminates the need for very large data sets that can be difficult to acquire and curate.

05. Blockchain-secured: artworks authenticated by Hephaestus are indelibly linked to a digital record stored on a blockchain. This ensures that our authentications cannot be duplicated, edited or forged.

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