ARTnewsletter Archive

Russian Art Auctions in London: Strong but Selective Buying

Four auction houses held five Russian art sales in London from Nov. 27-30, amassing a total of £53 million ($103.4 million) for some 2,000 lots of 18th- to 20th-century paintings, sculptures and works of art. The sales, the highest ever for a series, bring the global total for Russian art sales in London and New

LONDON—Four auction houses held five Russian art sales in London from Nov. 27-30, amassing a total of £53 million ($103.4 million) for some 2,000 lots of 18th- to 20th-century paintings, sculptures and works of art. The sales, the highest ever for a series, bring the global total for Russian art sales in London and New York this year to £128 million, or $234 million. (Last year the comparable total was £85 million; in 2000, just £7.6 million.)

Christie’s brought in the highest total this time, with a £28 million ($54.9 million) sale; but Sotheby’s, which holds four sales a year, compared with Christie’s two, retained its market share on an annual basis with £82 million ($153.6 million) for sales in London and New York, compared with Christie’s £36 million ($65.9 million).

Significantly, the Russian market boom, which is based on the supply of Russian art in the West and demand from oil-rich oligarchs, showed evidence of greater selectivity among buyers, with an average unsold rate of 35 percent by lot throughout the series of November auctions.

Rabin Work Headlines MacDougall Sale

The London series opened on Nov. 27 with an auction at MacDougall’s that fetched £2 million ($3.9 million), with 60 percent of 288 lots finding buyers.

The top lot was Violin at the Cemetery, 1969, by “nonconformist” artist Oscar Rabin (b. 1928), which sold within estimate (£100,000/200,000) for a record £168,000 ($327,000). Director Catherine MacDougall noted that contemporary art was one of the stronger sections of the sale. Abstract Composition with Cross, 1970, by Edvard Steinberg (b. 1937), more than doubled the $18,000 high estimate to sell for £39,750 ($77,338).

Kidnapping, 1984, by Vasily Sitnikov, a symbolist artist who had been consigned to a mental institution in the 1940s and emigrated from Russia in 1976, settling in the U.S. in 1979, realized a record £48,300, or $94,200 (estimate: £20,000/30,000).

Several of MacDougall’s highest-estimated lots failed to sell, however. One was Forestscape, 1889, by Ivan Shishkin (1832-98), one of Russia’s most highly prized 19th-century landscape artists but the subject of a recent, well-publicized forgery case. Despite bearing a certificate of authenticity from the State Russian Museum, the work was bought in (estimate: £400,000/600,000).

Other strong prices included: the £98,800, or $192,225 (estimate: £60,000/90,000), achieved for Chimney Sweep, by Firs Zhuravlev (1836-1901); £92,520, or $180,000 (estimate: £30,000/50,000), for Maple Tree in Autumn, by Boris Anisfeld (1879-1973); and £77,100, or $150,000 (estimate: £60,000/90,000), for Landscape with Sheep, by Pavel Kuznetzoff (1878-1968).

After the sale, codirector William MacDougall said that 90 percent of the buyers had been Russian or Ukrainian. “Although many have homes in the West,” he predicted, “50 percent of the works will go back East.”

Harlamoff Painting Takes $1.18M at Bonhams

Bonhams, which was holding its third regular sale of Russian art, also on Nov. 27, realized £2.5 million ($4.9 million), with 46 percent of the 352 lots going unsold. Says Bonhams consultant Martyn Saunders-Rawlins: “Buyers are becoming more selective, and they are bidding aggressively only for the most sought-after works.”

One of these at the auction was Bonhams’ top lot, The Little Seamstress, by Alexei Harlamoff (1840-1925), an artist popular in Europe during his lifetime and a mainstay of 19th-century European art sales. Estimated at £200,000/300,000, it took a record £610,000 ($1.18 million) from a private European collector. The underbidders: London dealer Richard Green and at least two Russian collectors.

The second-highest price was a below-estimate £145,600 ($283,900), given for Kronstadt, a view of the seaport by prolific 19th-century marine artist Ivan Aivazovsky (1817-1900). The price was a disappointment to Saunders-Rawlins, who felt the £150,000/200,000 estimate was reasonable in view of the £1 million-plus prices Aivazovsky has fetched. But with 14 paintings by the artist for sale in London that week, potential buyers were understandably holding back.

Like MacDougall’s, Bonhams had a section of contemporary art. Strong prices were recorded for conceptual artist Viktor Pivovarov when two works on paper from the early 1980s made £11,400 ($22,200) each, against estimates of £2,000/3,000. But many of the contemporary works by Steinberg, Vladimir Yankilevsky and even Dmitri Krasnopevtsev (a star at Sotheby’s last Russian art sale) went unsold.

“This is an unpredictable market,” observed Saunders-Rawlins. “You need to be on the ground in Moscow to know what’s going on, and we are at a distance.”

Sotheby’s came into this series as market leader with more than £59 million ($108 million) already achieved from Russian art sales in London and New York this year. The Nov. 28 sale was balanced between paintings and sculptures, which brought £10.6 million ($20.7 million); and decorative works of art, which fetched £9.6 million ($18.8 million). The £20.2 million ($39.4 million) sale made its top presale estimate. Several lots far exceeded estimates, and 10 records were broken. Nonetheless, 32 percent of the 423 lots on offer failed to sell.

Approximately 80-90 percent of the buyers were from Russia, reports Sotheby’s expert Joanna Vickery. Top prices in the paintings section came for early 20th-century figurative paintings. Alexander Yakovlev’s Three Woman in a Box at the Theatre, 1918, sold for a record £1 million, or $1.9 million (estimate: £280,000/350,000). Zinaida Serebriakova’s sensual Reclining Nude, 1930, made a record £881,600, or $1.7 million (estimate: £500,000/700,000).

A sun-drenched Street Scene, painted circa 1910 in Constantinople by Armenian painter Martiros Saryan, took a record £388,000, or $756,600 (estimate: £200,000/300,000).

The sales also were deep in academic and decorative 19th-century paintings; these have been making more than they would in regular 19th-century European art sales and are continuing to rise in value. Vladimir Makovsky’s Rest on the Way from Kiev, 1888, acquired three years ago in a Russian sale for £138,000, now brought a record £624,000, or $1.2 million (estimate: £250,000/350,000).

His brother Konstantin Makovsky’s peasant scene Haymaking, 1873, which had fetched £13,800 in 1993, now earned £568,000, or $1.1 million (estimate: £200,000/300,000).

Aivazovsky, the first artist to break the £1 million barrier in a Russian sale two years ago (at Christie’s), fared very well at Sotheby’s. One telephone bidder picked up five of the artist’s paintings, some quite small and indifferent in quality, for just above £1 million ($1.9 million) all told. The costliest, The Survivors, 1895, was acquired on a single bid at the £500,000 low estimate.

Christie’s the Leader with Sales of $54.9M

Having previously lagged behind Sotheby’s in the Russian market, Christie’s tallied £28 million ($54. 9 million) on Nov. 29—the highest total to date for a Russian sale. The morning picture sale, which lasted four hours, brought £18.3 million ($35.7 million) for 223 lots, of which 73 percent were sold.

The afternoon sale, devoted to other works of art (including silver and gold), made £9.7 million ($19.1 million); it included the top lot of the day, a pair of Imperial porcelain vases, 1844, which won a top-estimate £2.8 million ($5.5 million). But Christie’s star lot, an elaborate Fabergé mantel clock estimated to fetch the highest price for a Russian work of art at £4/6 million, was unsold.

If Sotheby’s had felt a shift toward the 20th century, at Christie’s it was even more pronounced. Of the top-ten-selling lots, eight were by 20th-century artists, and six of these set new records.

The top lot of the session, which elicited a spontaneous round of applause from the crowd, was Pastorale Russe, 1922, a semi-erotic, fairy-tale painting of two lovers in the moonlight by Konstantin Somov (1869-1939), which fetched £2.7 million ($5.3 million), soaring past the estimate of £200,000/300,000. The price was a record for a painting in a Russian sale.

Another artist’s record was set for Pavel Filonov when The Adoration of the Magi, 1913, last sold in 1990 for £51,000, now made £904,000 (estimate: £250,000/350,000), falling to the Russian trade.

Christie’s offered nine paintings by Aivazovsky, but sold only three. The star lot, his panoramic View of Constantinople, 1852, doubled the £650,000 it made three years before to sell for £1.6 million ($3.2 million) to Cornelia Pallavicini, of Christie’s Russian private-client division, but it was the only bid, presumably made against the reserve.

While Christie’s Alexis de Tiesenhausen described it as “a bad day for Aivazovsky,” other professionals pointed to the auctioneer’s high estimates and doubts surrounding some attributions to Aivazovsky, whose studio assistants produced works in his style. There was also the oversupply factor: 13 paintings by Aivazovsky in the London sales and five more in Copenhagen the following week.

Christie’s calculated that 43 percent of registered buying activity was from Russia (including Ukraine), 29 percent from the U.K., 16 percent from Europe and 12 percent from the Americas, but did not specify how much of the bidding from outside Russia was from Russians living abroad.