The curious saga of a Russian cosmetics entrepreneur and his €107m Cellini painting

The painting found in a French village that its owner claims to be a self-portrait by Benvenuto Cellini
© Tamoikin Art Fund.

The plot is straight out of a thriller: a multi-million dollar portrait discovered in a French junk shop; mysterious Russian mediators; A sale to Saudi Arabia cost 107 million euros, but it never happened, and a previously unknown art fund run by two entrepreneurs who are selling a stake in it. One of them hasn’t even seen the picture

This is just the beginning of the seditious story of this portrait on paper on canvas that a Russian beauty products maker, Oleg Nasobin, found in the Provencal village of Draguignan in 2005; Inscription “Tête d’homme, Benvenuto Cellini”.

From there, it was only a short hop to Nasobin, who decided it was a self-portrait of the great Renaissance goldsmith who created the famous and extravagant Saliera (salt cellar) – despite the portrait that was made in the 19th century seemed century, with an inscription in French, not Italian.

The story is the subject of a compelling ten-part BBC Radio 3 series Blood and Bronze (which will air between March 22 and April 2 and subsequently be available on BBC Sounds), directed by Jerry Brotton, professor of Renaissance studies, researched, written and narrated at Queen Mary University in London.

Nasobin is described as a collector, actor, blogger and publicist on the Russian website Rucompromat. He was involved in the British television series McMafia in 2017, but also ran a cosmetics store, Green Mama, in France for years. He tells his story in a thriller, Benvenuto: The Secret of an Image, and he claims that all the events in it are absolutely true. The Russian press has reported about the company’s troubles and even some disagreements with Russian banks that have led to a lawsuit.

The Russian manufacturer of beauty products Oleg Nasobin
© Valeriy Levitin / Sputnik

Secret authentication

Meanwhile, Nasobin was working on the portrait and asked a number of experts to authenticate it. This included a now-retired trader in the south of France, Richard David (“court-appointed expert on antiques, objets d’art and jewelry”), who presented a certificate of work attesting to a 16th-century self-portrait by Cellini. a study of facial features by a French academic, Raoul Perrot; Color analysis by a Paris laboratory and a report from British restorer Sarah Walden, who wrote that the portrait was “undoubtedly” from the 16th century, although she also said the inscription was from the 19th century. All initially responded to contacts from The Art Newspaper, but all but Perrot dropped out when asked for more information on how they came to their conclusions.

In 2007, Nasobin organized a press conference to introduce his discovery to the world. The price was 60 million euros. He was disappointed with the lack of effect, although the Daily Telegraph wrote an article about it.

Then, in 2018, Nasobin sent the picture through intermediaries to the equally colorful Mikhail Tamoikin. The Russia & America Goodwill Association published an article about him in 2016 as follows: “Last August, Mikhail Tamoikin was kidnapped at gunpoint in central Kiev, chained and pulled into a car, taken to a boat, where he was beaten and tortured. Miraculously, he escaped by jumping into the river and swimming 12 km to safety. “

What did he do to deserve this? The article continued, “He single-handedly stopped what is perhaps the largest illegal sale of ancient gold artifacts in the world, valued at over half a billion dollars. It was organized by corrupt senior Ukrainian officials, police officers and organized crime groups who are after Mikhail to this day. “

The Saudi connection

When the Tamoikins aren’t fighting corruption, they’re running the Tamoikin Art Fund, father Mikhail and son Dmitry. With their Tamoikin expert system, they rated the “Cellini” at a strangely precise 56,487,902 euros. They then used various coefficients such as the price of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvador Mundi to get the final price of 106.79 million euros and agreed to advertise the painting on behalf of Nasobin.

According to a WordPress blog published in 2018, the National Museum of Saudi Arabia was planning to buy the portrait at that price. The blog contained a (seemingly photoshopped) screenshot from the Saudi Press Agency (SPA). The Art Newspaper’s efforts to identify the blog’s author were unsuccessful.

At this point, Brotton found the story and contacted Dmitry Tamoikin. He announced that he had not seen the painting and, in fact, had not sold it to Saudi Arabia, that Nasobin cut communications prior to this “sale” and that the Fund is now in a dispute with Nasobin and is trying to sell it “contractual item “in the work for € 1.5 million due to their expenses in the project.

When we went to print, Brotton was in contact with Oleg Nasobin but couldn’t speak to Mikhael Tamoikin. When asked by Brotton if he really thought the portrait was real, Dimitry Tamoikin said, “That’s the 107 million euro question” and added, “You couldn’t make this stuff up!” All.

• Blood and Bronze will air on BBC Radio 3 between March 22nd and April 2nd

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