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Russian Art Scores Records Despite Lower Sales

The total for this spring’s sales of Russian art at Christie’s and Sotheby’s dropped 42 percent, to $27.1 million from $46.4 million last year (ANL, 4/29/08).

NEW YORK—The total for this spring’s sales of Russian art at Christie’s and Sotheby’s dropped 42 percent, to $27.1million from $46.4million last year (ANL, 4/29/08). Both houses, however, claimed several strong prices for Russian paintings—including a record for a work by Sviatoslav Roerich (1904–93), son of artist Nikolai Roerich (1874–1947)—and buyers responded enthusiastically to works with solid provenances that were fresh to the market.

Sotheby’s sale on April 22 realized a total of $13.8million, within the estimate of $12.5million/17.5million. Of the 308 lots offered, 200, or 65 percent, found buyers. By value, the auction was 71.8 percent sold.

The top lot was Ivan Aivazovsky’s oil Columbus Sailing from Palos, 1892, part of a series depicting the life of Christopher Colum­bus. The painting had once been in the collection of Marjorie Merri­weather Post, heir to the Post cereal fortune, who lived in the Soviet Union from 1937 to 1938. Consigned by her heirs, the work carried an estimate of $1million/1.5million, and sold for $1.6million with premium.

“Certainly the market is selective, but in some instances, we saw works double and triple their estimates,” commented Sonya Bekkerman, Sotheby’s head of Russian paintings. Bekkerman called the sales “the first test of the season,” and said “it’s clear that the market for Russian art remains strong.”

The second-highest price of the sale was the $1.26million paid for Boris Grigoriev’s Preparing Crêpes, A Pair, circa 1935 (estimate: $500,000/700,000), a two-part oil painting. The work was a gift from the artist to Giovanni Pramaggiore, the owner of Giovanni, a French restaurant popular with Russian expatriates, celebrities and artists, including Grigoriev. One part of the painting, depicting a waiter preparing crêpes, had hung in the restaurant, on East 55th Street in New York. The other, a portrait of Pramaggiore—originally part of a larger, single composition until the artist divided the work at the restaurant owner’s request—hung in his private residence above. The work was consigned by Pramaggiore’s heirs.

That lot was followed by Samurai, a ­sanguine-and-charcoal drawing by Aleksander Iakovlev (1887–1938), which sold for $602,500, an auction record for a work on paper by the artist and more than quadruple the estimate of $85,000/125,000.

Works by Nikolai Roerich yielded strong prices, including Secrets of the Walls, 1920, which had been in the same private collection for more than 50 years, and was sold for $530,500 (estimate: $150,000/200,000). Monhegan, Maine (Hope), 1922, from his “Ocean” series, sold for $434,500 (estimate: $250,000/350,000), and Mystery, 1918, a tempera on canvas, sold for $362,500, within the estimate of $300,000/500,000.

Following the sale, Sotheby’s officials claimed the $266,500 price paid for Sviatoslav Roerich’s tempera-on-canvas Three Boddisatvas, circa 1920s, as a record for a work by the artist, but two days later Christie’s broke that record with a far-higher $3million price for the artist’s Portrait of Nicholas Roerich in a Tibetan Robe, 1933 (estimate: $900,000/1.1million). That work was the top lot of Christie’s auction, and of the Russian sales overall.

The second-highest price at Christie’s was for another work by Nikolai Roerich, The Greatest and Holiest of Tangla, 1929, from the “Sham­bhala” series, which sold for $1.4million, far above the $300,000/500,000 estimate.

In all Christie’s realized $13.2million for 390 lots, of which 269, or 69 percent, found buyers. By value, the auction was 80 percent sold. Other top prices for fine art in the sale included the $242,500 paid for A Spring Day in Ukraine, 1882, a landscape by Vladimir Orlovsky (1842–1914) estimated at $200,000/300,000, and the $230,500 paid for Portrait of Edulji Dinshaw, 1940, by Pavel Tchelitchew, far above the $80,000/120,000 estimate. James Hastie, Christie’s head of Russian art, called the results “a testament to how robust the Russian art market is.”

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