Following a trail

Orphan Paintings — Where did they originate? Where can they go?

Posted 1/11/11

“It’s long and complicated, but I still would do it,” he says. The convoluted tale told by Ron Pollard of Englewood should probably begin with …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Don't have an ID?

Print subscribers

If you're a print subscriber, but do not yet have an online account, click here to create one.


Click here to see your options for becoming a subscriber.

If you made a voluntary contribution in 2022-2023 of $50 or more, but do not yet have an online account, click here to create one at no additional charge. VIP Digital Access includes access to all websites and online content.

Our print publications are advertiser supported. For those wishing to access our content online, we have implemented a small charge so we may continue to provide our valued readers and community with unique, high quality local content. Thank you for supporting your local newspaper.

Following a trail

Orphan Paintings — Where did they originate? Where can they go?


“It’s long and complicated, but I still would do it,” he says.

The convoluted tale told by Ron Pollard of Englewood should probably begin with “Once Upon a Time…”

As he speaks about the collection of more than 150 “Orphan Paintings: Unauthenticated Art of the Russian Avant-Garde” currently exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, his voice alternates between passionate engagement with this collection of works and frustration at the lack of a paper trail, provenance, that would connect him to their history. And impatience with the highly structured art world and its concern with provenance surfaces.

As advised early in the process, he consulted a lawyer and the FBI, to be sure the works weren’t stolen.

“We own the paintings.” He also had a New York art expert fly to Denver to look at the art, a very negative experience.

Framed paintings are displayed in a large gallery on the second floor and unframed works are stacked in two adjacent hallways. They came out of an important 20th century art movement called Constructivist, Avant Garde, Suprematist, with a great deal of recorded history. Idealistic, philosophical Russian painters drew some inspiration from unsigned, spiritual icons, as well as reflecting the cubist work exhibited in Europe at the time. Non-objective and figurative works are included. It is noted by many as the beginning of modern art.

The Suprematist Movement, led by prolific painter Kasimir Malevich, a philosophical, mystical man included names such as Liubov Popova, Nadezhda Uldaltsova, Ivan Kliun, Olga Rosanova, Alexander Rodchenko and many more. Malevich and others worked in a collective. His “Black Square” on a white field was an early expression of non -objectivist feeling — and controversial.

Pollard thinks Malevich didn’t generally sign his work, nor did his colleagues. There is handwriting on the back of one saying “woman with a saw,” which a handwriting expert thinks matches his. (It’s one of Pollard’s favorites in the show). It’s known that he left work in Germany after a 1927 exhibit, because of conditions in Russia.

With the 1920s rise of Stalinism, this work was considered rubbish, Pollard said. Artists were forced to paint what was “politically correct,“ cease painting or emigrate. Where such art had been bought by the state and placed in government-run museums, it now entered a period when it was not recorded not cared for. Wars and chaos perhaps obliterated records if any existed. “The country was turned upside down and things shook out,” Pollard said.

“It’s not so much are they real, but what are they? I’m more than agnostic. I’m kind of atheistic about them. I don’t really care about what experts think. They are arrogant and controlling the market,” he said.

Pollard has seen a lot of this art in museums and feels right about the authenticity of works in the collection.

The story begins in 2004, when Pollard, an artist, architectural photographer and collector with a longtime interest in the Constructivist art movement in Russia circa 1910 to 1920s, was surfing through art listed on e-bay and came across seven paintings one day that “looked right.” He contacted his brother Roger, a retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel living in Alaska, and they decided to bid on one, winning the auction at $500. The seller in Aachen, Germany, wrote about two more paintings which they also bought.

Mixed messages began. A appraiser estimated the value of the first acquisitions in the millions, but someone interested only in selling, such as Sotheby Auction House wouldn’t consider them without proof of origin — provenance.

The German seller, a collector in love with his art, said he bought an unclaimed crate filled with such paintings.

Enter a third collector: Roger’s friend Brad Gessner, an epidemiologist who was in Paris on a professional trip, arranged to meet the seller and his adviser/interpreter at the Gare du Nord train station in Paris and wrote a lively description of the encounter in Feb. 2008 that led to more purchases.

He arrived at track 7 in time for the arrival of THYS 9416 and found Jochen and Wolfgang (a smiling goofy bald man and his elder accomplice). The latter was the collector, an intellectual with a 25 year addiction to Russian Avant-Garde art, actively involved in a network of collectors, constantly buying and selling (his wife objected that they needed money for food, etc.)

His assistant and interpreter Jochen, who did not seem well acquainted with the art in question, “smelled just like the paintings at the moment the package is opened and the smoky smell washes out,” Gessner wrote.

Woll thought the paintings came out of schools in St. Petersburg and Moscow, perhaps including student work at various levels: entirely by a student, by a student with master’s suggestions, student work with master’s brushstrokes added, entirely by the master. (This sort of system dates back to Europe’s Old Masters and exists today).

MCAD director Adam Lerner makes a strong statement asking “what precisely are we appreciating when we look at a work of art? Are we appreciating what is visible to us, or is it a range of invisible factors, such as the belief that it was made by a master or the opinion of experts about its authenticity? This collection of unauthenticated Russian avant-garde paintings asks: can an art experience be authentic even if the status of art remains questionable? Are there other forms of authenticity aside from attribution to an artist?

What’s next when the paintings return to storage after Jan. 23? Pollard hopes there will be more museum exhibits with national and international attention.

If you go:

“Orphan Paintings: Unauthenticated Art of the RussThe Museum of Contemporary Art Denver is at 1485 Delgany St., Denver. (A block from Union Station). Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, Fridays until 10 p.m. 303-298-7554,


Our Papers

Ad blocker detected

We have noticed you are using an ad blocking plugin in your browser.

The revenue we receive from our advertisers helps make this site possible. We request you whitelist our site.