Irregular working hours, frequent trips out of town, a fondness for radical politics… The more unconventional aspects of life as an artist were the reasons why it proved to be such an effective cover for one KGB spy.
A British national of Russian descent, Vilyam Genrikhovich Fisher (also known as Rudolf Ivanovich Abel) was recruited into the KGB during World War II and sent to the United States as an undercover agent in 1948. There he spent nine years undertaking missions across the country with the aim of smuggling atomic secrets to Russia. In 1953 Fisher arrived in Brooklyn under the alias Emil Goldfus and began posing as a struggling painter and photographer, while secretly leading a New York-based spy ring. With the help of a duped art student, Burton Silverman, the spy worked on his painting technique and built up a networks of artist friends who shared his taste for realism in the city of Abstract Expressionism.
Fisher was eventually discovered and arrested in 1957 when the FBI finally cracked the Hollow Nickel Case (the name in reference to the way by which information was passed between spies). On 15 November 1957 he was sentenced to serve 45 years in prison. However, Fisher ultimately got a lucky break when only four years into his sentence he was exchanged for Gary Powers, the pilot of the ill-fated U-2 spy plane which in 1960 was shot down in Soviet airspace during a reconnaissance mission.
The fascinating story of the spy-artist known as Emil Goldfus was recently retold by Silverman’s son: The Russian Spy Who Duped my Dad.
Images (top to bottom): Emil Goldfus in the studio, 1957. Photo by Burton Silverman; Portrait of Emil Goldfus by Burton Silverman, 1958. Courtesy Silverman Studios Inc.