JMW Turner:  the source; expert opinion and  forensic studies on JMW Turner.. Expertise and fine art authentication ifar / fakes, forgeries and genuine art work by JMW Turner / University press

The Hapless Sting

        Art World’s Dirty Little Secret
                     r malcolm setters / graham setters

"With the RCMP agent's lack of art historical knowledge, it is clear why the authorities found it difficult planning their assault on Mr. Visnei and the Turner painting, Shipwreck, the Rescue. While quizzing the Mountie (M); the defense lawyer, Mr. Dowding (D) mounted one attack which must have stirred the stale atmosphere of the courtroom:

D. So you have no information on the El Greco, in whose possession it is, or do you? The “Last Supper?”

M. I have no idea; I didn’t even know that the “Last Supper” was by El Greco.

D. You’ve never seen it?

M. I saw the photo of it, but I didn’t know El Greco painted it. I’m very ignorant in art.

D. Well, there’s more than one “Last Supper,” I presume. It may have been the second Last Supper?

M. Well, that could be, I don’t know.

There are no references to general mood in the courtroom, but relative to the previous dull verbiage; this answer should have at least roused the weary. Again, Dowding makes an assault: “So, you don’t quarrel with the Raphael painting selling for seven million U.S., do you?”

M. I have no idea what a Raphael is.

D. (Have) you ever heard of a goblin tapestry?

M.  In the comic strip “Peanuts” they refer to a “van Gogh” or something; that’s about the only time I heard it."


"With so little grounds for suspicion, and no disparaging evidence, how could an investigation such as this have gotten started in the first place? By the end of the trial Visnei was convicted for the crime of fraud, based not on trying to sell a fake painting, but on misrepresentation. It was only after the investigation had started and the sting was well underway that Visnei was trapped as a result of his own overzealous salesmanship.

When Dowding asked the ‘agent provocateur’ about the genuine nature of the painting: “… you had been carefully instructed that it wasn’t (genuine), had you not?” All the agent could do was answer vaguely: “No, your Honour. I can’t say I was carefully instructed that it was definitely a fraudulent painting; that was not the case at all. I believe I advised the Court previously that we were under the impression, or were investigating a matter where a fraudulent painting could be in the area of Vancouver, and there was a possibility that somebody was trying to sell it to the unsuspecting public.”

After being nudged by the offhand suspicion of Dr. Crow, the investigation seemed to take off spontaneously; was it merely a search to appease human curiosity over the intrigue associated with international art-forgery and fraud, or were the police already pointed in Visnei’s direction for other undisclosed reasons? This might never be answered, but in the process of the attack on the unsuspecting Visnei, many lives were disrupted, and possibly others destroyed. Could the ex-patriot ever go home to Germany now that Interpol was looking for him?  It was doubtful.

In the ‘judgment’ given at the end of the trial, the authenticity of the painting seemed irrelevant; the fraud charges were redirected toward misrepresentations made after the sting had begun. The Crown emphasized the fraudulent statements about the source and price paid. The paintings were referred to throughout the document as the Turner and the Picasso. The concern shifted from whether the paintings were ‘fake’, to, how they had been described to the agent provocateur. There was no longer any mention about the genuine nature of the art works under investigation. Had it been accepted that there was nothing wrong with them?


Text Box: As desperate prey, the quarry inevitably took the option of fleeing to avoid slaughter. Visnei had disappeared!


Twenty years later, with the rest of the evidence shredded and only a lopsided viewpoint to judge the merits of the indictment, we can only see the accused as a scoundrel.  But in all fairness we should limit our disdain. A scoundrel he might have been but accounting for the language barrier and his poor grasp of Canadian law, pitiable might be a better descriptor. He was probably defeated before he began. It is difficult to get a complete picture but it would be wretchedly unfortunate, if during the trial his friends for fears of their own were cowed from supporting a friend in need.

With Mr. Visnei ‘on the lam’, out of the country, the court could do little else but seal his fate, at least in relation to his affairs on Canadian soil. The Crown convicted him of fraud on two counts. On wrapping up the case expeditiously the judge ruled that Visnei’s own evidence was fallacious.  According to the Judgment, nobody that was involved, including the notary public who had the Doctor Rudloff documents translated (documents which supported the Turner as genuine) could remember precisely what was written, or more curiously, how the papers had disappeared from police custody. Thus, this important evidence was ignored. Even the evidence tying the ownership of Shipwreck, the Rescue back to Rudloff, the reputed art scholar, was tossed out.

Will Visnei ever be heard from again? Probably not, but if he were still alive he would likely be an old man. The somewhat feeble efforts to trace the German professor, Dr. Rudloff, failed, and here also he might have passed away. Regardless of whether the tangled web could be unstrung, the police were the biggest winners. The end of the trial gave them a reprieve from answering embarrassing questions over why the sting was set up in the first place. And as for Shipwreck, the Rescue, it had become the property of the government, or as alluded to before—The Crown." 

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