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Russian Sales: Buyers Vie for Quality Works

Sales of Russian art at Christie’s and Sotheby’s, from April 24-28, hit record highs amid increasing demand and a growing number of Russian buyers on hand at the Manhattan salerooms. Christie’s held the smaller of the two auctions, on April 2

NEW YORK—Sales of Russian art at Christie’s and Sotheby’s, from April 24-28, hit record highs amid increasing demand and a growing number of Russian buyers on hand at the Manhattan salerooms.

Christie’s held the smaller of the two auctions, on April 24, combining decorative Russian art with fine art, though the main focus of the sale was Russian paintings. The house grossed $15 million, with 136, or 70 percent, of 193 lots sold. By value the auction was 89 percent sold. Alexis de Tiesenhausen, international head of Russian works of art at Christie’s, told ARTnewsletter that the sale results “prove the market is as selective as ever.”

At Sotheby’s the total for fine and decorative Russian artworks rose to $54.4 million, a 54 percent increase from last year’s inaugural sale, which realized $35.5 million. A total of 761 works were offered; 589, or 77 percent, found buyers. By value the sold rate was 84 percent.

At Christie’s the top lot was an oil by Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939), “a reduced version of” The Abolition of Serfdom in Russia, 1920. Offered from the collection of Ambassador Charles R. Crane (1858-1939), who served the U.S. in a variety of diplomatic positions, the work fell just under its low estimate of $1.5 million for $1.47 million. This was followed by the $1.4 million sale of Sleeping Nude, 1931, an oil by Zinaida Evgen’evna Serebriakova (1884-1967), which had a presale estimate of $300,000/400,000.

Observes de Tiesenhausen: “While collectors are more attracted to paintings of the highest quality, it’s important to have realistic estimates. As long as this rule applies, you see very good-to- amazing results.”

The top lots provided six records, including the prices for the Mucha and the Serebriakova as well as $1.1 million given for The Bazaar in Samarkind, 1895 (estimate: $400,000/600,000), by Georgii Ivanovich Gabashvili (1862-1936); and Promenade of Empress Elizabeth, 1906, by Aleksandr Nikolaevich Benua (Benois) (1870-1960), which fetched $441,600 (estimate: $80,000/ 140,000). Moonlight, 1892, by Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovskii (1817- 1900), brought $1.1 million (estimate: $1/1.5 million).

At Sotheby’s the sales overall “went incredibly well,” Sonya Bekkerman, vice president and director of Russian paintings in New York, told ARTnewsletter. “Many works sold well above estimate and drew fierce interest and bidding.” Buyers “are really vying for top quality,” Bekkerman notes. “This is a market that is maturing; collectors are educating themselves and remain determined to acquire works of the highest quality.”

The top lot at Sotheby’s was a tempera on canvas, Lao-Tze (considered the father of Chinese Taoism), by Nikolai Konstantinovich Roerich (1874- 1947). The work, offered from the Bolling Family Collection, was part of the artist’s “Banners of the East” series depicting great spiritual leaders of humanity, undertaken before the artist’s travels to the U.S. and Europe in 1924. Estimated at $200,000/300,000, the piece fetched a final price of $2.2 million, a record that more than doubled the previous one set two days earlier at Christie’s, when the artist’s Tsong-Kha-Pa, 1924, made $856,000 (estimate: $250,000/350,000).

Yakovlev Painting Fetches $1.2 Million

The record for Alexander Evgenievich Yakovlev (1887-1938), a Russian artist who traveled extensively throughout China and Japan, was broken twice during Sotheby’s morning session on April 26. In the first instance, a tempera on canvas, General Ma-Soo in the Historical Play ‘The Retreat of Kiai-Ting,’ ignited fierce bidding. Estimated at $150,000/200,000, the work sparked competition among buyers in the room and on the phone before selling for $1.2 million to a phone bidder.

Minutes later that record was topped when a final price of $1.8 million was set for the next lot, Yakovlev’s Kabuki Dancer, a colorful tempera on canvas featuring a Japanese dancer in a graceful pose (estimate: $150,000/ 200,000). Yakovlev, who was traveling in China when the Russian Revolution broke, never returned to Russia, opting instead for Paris, where his career took off. Auctioneer Benjamin Doller opened the bidding for Kabuki Dancer at $100,000, but a volley of bids quickly drove the price into seven-figure territory. The work fell to a phone bidder.

Another artist’s record was the $1.36 million paid for Reading in the Garden, circa 1915, by Nikolai Petrovich Bogdanov-Belsky (1868-1945). The oil on canvas, offered from a private collection, had been estimated at $250,000/ 300,000.

The Sotheby’s auction also featured a small group of lower-priced contemporary works at the tail end of the first Russian art session. Here sales were thin, with roughly half the 20 works finding buyers.

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