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Strong Russian Sales But High Buy-In Rates

A five-day series of Russian art sales beginning on June 9 had no shortage of high prices or of demand for rare works.

LONDON—A five-day series of Russian art sales beginning on June 9 had no shortage of high prices or of demand for rare works. However, with relatively high buy-in rates at some houses, less competition for major lots, and a drop in overall sale volume, many observers are wondering if the recent rapid growth of the Russian art market—powered in large part by ranks of newly wealthy Russian buyers—might be beginning to cool. Some dealers suggest that high prices are driving Russian collectors to look at Western art, including low- to moderately priced Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works, as an alternative.

Bonhams started off with an auction on June 9 that yielded a total of £5.5 million ($10.9 million), its highest yet for a sale of Russian art, but nearly half of its 241 lots were unsold. The 19th- and early-20th-century paintings section was the more successful, reaching its presale estimate. This session was led by a breezy £1.7 million ($3.4 million) painting of a boat in choppy waters, Sailboat, circa 1910, by Natalia Goncharova (1881–1962), a pioneer of the early 20th-century avant-garde.

Goncharova became the world’s most expensive female artist in June of last year, when her painting Picking Apples, 1909, sold for £4.9 million ($9.8 million) at an Impressionist evening sale at Christie’s. As a result, no fewer than 14 works by Goncharova were offered at the recent sales, some with very ambitious estimates. This probably explains why Sailboat, which was estimated at £1.5 million/2 million, did not do better. The weaker section of the sale, however, was the postwar and contemporary art—still a relatively experimental segment of the market—which fell well below presale estimates.

Fears that the high unsold rate at Bonhams might presage disaster were swept aside by Sotheby’s £39.7 million ($78.1 million) series of sales held June 9–12, which was the house’s largest yet. A healthier 63 percent of lots were sold, though the auctioneer had to work hard here as well to extract bids on two highly valued lots by Goncharova.

Both were still-life paintings dated before 1914. The first, Still Life of Peaches and Red Flowers, circa 1910, was sold on only one bid from Ukrainian collector Alexander Adamovsky for £1.2 million ($2.3 million) against an estimate of £1 million/£1.5 million. The second, Nature morte aux fruits, circa 1912–13, also was sold on a single bid, this time on the telephone, for £2.3 million ($4.5 million) against an estimate of £2 million/3 million.

Still, several works did attract competitive bidding. Nikolai Roerich’s Symbolist painting of a peaceful lake made during the violent days of the Russian Revolution, Birds of the Morning (Messengers of the Dawn), 1917, for example, sold to Cologne dealer Alex Lachmann for a double-estimate £457,000 ($900,000).

As a measure of how much prices have risen, Sotheby’s £2.3 million Goncharova, Nature morte aux fruits, had been bought ten years before for £181,000 ($300,000). And The Kremlin on the Eve of the Coronation of Tsar Mikhail Fedorovich, 1913, a depiction of the first Romanov coronation at the Kremlin in the 17th century, which had sold for £38,000 ($65,000) in 1992, sold here for £959,650 ($1.9 million)—a record for the artist, Konstantin Yuon (1875–1958).

Pausing for Breath

“I think buyers are slowing down,” Lachmann told ARTnewsletter. He thinks that the skyrocketing prices of recent years may be giving some Russian buyers pause, and motivating some to look at Western art. However, “I don’t think prices will be going down,” he says, just not continuing to rise as rapidly.

Lachmann points out that the market for Russian art is quite young—just about 20 years old—especially when compared with that for Western art, and buyers have not had nearly as much time to amass experience and knowledge of the works in the market.

The glories of the Imperial past clearly continued to attract Russian collectors—a diamond badge of the Order of St. Andrew, circa 1800, made for the use of the Tsar and his immediate family, sold for £2.7 million ($5.3 million) at Sotheby’s Russian works of art sale on June 12, five times its estimate and a record for any military order at auction.

In all, Christie’s sale of Russian art on June 11 realized £11.3 million ($22 million). Of 298 lots offered, 196, or 66 percent, were sold. The highest price of the sale was the £1.4 million ($2.7 million) given by a private Russian collector for Ivan Shishkin’s Mast Pine Forest in Viatka Province, 1889, well in excess of the £400,000/600,000 estimate. That lot was followed by a portrait of Japanese actor Todzuro Kavarasaki by Petr Konchalovsky (1876–1956), which sold within estimate for £1 million ($2 million).

Christie’s failure, however, to sell several of its most highly valued lots—including a painting by Goncharova, The Crucifixion, 1906, that had been estimated at £1.5 million/2.5 million—sent a ¬shiver through the market. London dealer Ivan Samarine, who bought three of the top lots at Sotheby’s for Russian clients, said that estimates generally have tripled in the past three years, but buyers have become more discerning, rejecting lesser works by the best known artists.

Piling on Offerings

MacDougall’s, the specialist Russian-art auctioneer, piled on the lots in its sales on June 12–13—a total of 540, compared with fewer than 300 at Christie’s. The young company, which is in only its fourth year of business, proved it could sell major 19th-century artists—Ivan Aivazovsky and Shishkin—for over £1 million, launch obscure artists such as Vladimir Luppian (1892–1961) on the auction market, and rouse the sleeping giant of Soviet Socialist Realist painting. But in an attempt to increase its market share, it suffered the highest unsold rate of the week at more than 50 percent.

The sales realized a total of £12.4 million ($24 million). Among the highlights were Aivazovsky’s View of Odessa by Moonlight, 1860, which sold for £1 million ($1.97 million) against an £800,000/1.8 million estimate, and Shishkin’s Meriküla–At the Dacha, 1894, which sold for £1.1 million ($2.1 million) against an expected £750,000/1.5 million.

At last November’s Russian art auctions in London, the auction houses had expected sales of £100 million ($200 million), and achieved £98 million ($196 million). Last week’s sales were also expected to bring as much as £100 million. But with the four main auction-house competitors placing higher and higher estimates on almost 2,000 works in order to secure them for sale, the casualty rate increased and the total raised was a much more modest £72 million ($136.8 million).

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