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Russian Art Roundup: London Sales Yield Uneven Results

After a dismal start in the day sales on June 8, the series of auctions of Russian art began to pick up at Sotheby’s evening sale later that day.

LONDON—After a dismal start in the day sales on June 8, the series of auctions of Russian art began to pick up at Sotheby’s evening sale later that day. Bonhams, Christie’s, MacDougall’s and Sotheby’s realized a combined total of £30.7 million ($49 million), compared with the £72 million ($137 million) total of last June (ANL, 6/24/08).

Bonhams failed to sell its most expensive lots (apart from a 19th-century Russian Cavalry sword, which sold for a top-estimate £120,000), and realized a total of £1 million ($1.6 million) against a low estimate of £2.7 million. Only 90, or 48 percent, of the 188 lots found buyers.

In Sotheby’s trimmed-down sale, 17, or 63 percent, of the 27 lots sold, bringing in a total of £7.9 million ($12.5 million), falling within the estimate of £6.7 million/9.9 million and breaking four artist records. Most of the action centered on the 19th-century and more decorative ­early-20th-century paintings, with the market eschewing the more avant-garde abstract offerings.

The top lot was Boris Kustodiev’s nostalgic The Village Fair, 1920, which sold to an anonymous phone bidder for a record £2.8 million ($4.5 million) against a £1 million/1.5 million estimate. The painting had previously sold at Sotheby’s in London in December 1995 for £46,600—a measure of the extraordinary rise in prices that has taken place in this market. The same anonymous phone bidder also acquired a recently rediscovered masterpiece by Isaak Brodsky, Nanny with Children, 1912, for a record £937,250 ($1.5 million) on an estimate of £300,000/500,000, as well as Alexander Yakov­lev’s Footbridge at Fort Archambault, 1926. The latter sold for £541,250 ($858,964), far above the £200,000/300,000 estimate, against competition from dealer Igor Schleiger, Cologne and Moscow.

Schleiger was also the underbidder for Nikolai Roerich’s The Treasure, 1919, which sold for £702,050 ($1.1 million), well above its estimate of £300,000/500,000. Another trade buyer on the list of top lots was Alexandre Tabalov, owner of the recently launched Art Kapital auction house in Kiev, who bought Nikolai Bogdanov-Belsky’s Impressionistic Symphony for £349,250 ($554,260), within the £300,000/500,000 estimate, and was the underbidder on Sergei Vinogradov’s elegant Lady in an Interior, 1924, which sold for £217,250 ($344,776) on an estimate of £150,000/200,000.

The most significant buy-ins were Flowers on a Veranda, 1902, an early painting by Mikhail Larionov estimated at £700,000/900,000, and the Cubo-Futurist Abstract Composition, circa 1912–14, by Alexander Bogomazov (1880–1930), estimated at £300,000/400,000.

Sotheby’s ended the week with overall sales of £17.7 million ($28.5 million) and an average sell-through rate of 65 percent for the total of 333 lots offered.

In its part-two day sale of Russian paintings, Sotheby’s took in £4.2 million ($6.8 million), selling 65 percent of lots, including the small Portrait of a lady, 1936, by Konstantin Somov, which sold for £289,250 ($474,457), well above the estimate of £30,000/50,000.

However, a sale of contemporary Russian and Ukrainian art on June 9—which had been rescheduled from its original March date—met with stubborn resistance, and only 41, or 39 percent, of the 109 lots found buyers, taking in only £900,000 ($1.45 million)—short of the estimate of £1.1 million/2.4 million.

Reasonable Estimates Boost Christie’s Results

Having previously set the record for an auction of Russian art with a £44.9 million ($92.5 million) sale in November 2007 (ANL, 12/11/07), Christie’s, like Bonhams, seemed content to present a smaller offering, just 198 lots wrapped up in one sale. The results, however, were very different from Bonhams’. Estimated at £3.3 million/4.9 million, the sale yielded a solid £4 million ($6.5 million), with a sell-through rate of 65 percent by lot, 82 percent by value. “Quality and the right estimates” were Christie’s watchwords, international head of department Alexis de Tiesenhausen said.

Only 61 lots were paintings, out of which 42 found buyers. The top lot was A Finnish village. Roofs, circa 1920, an American-style modernist painting by Vasilii Shukaev, which sold to the Ukrainian collector Andrey Adamovskiy for £690,850 ($1.1 million), surpassing the estimate of £300,000/500,000. It had hung for years in a U.S. collection, Tiesenhausen said.

Adamovskiy—who had bought a £1 million Natalia Goncharova still life at Sotheby’s last June—also bought Nature morte au geraniums, 1917, a Cubist-style still life by Maria Marevna, for £27,500 ($44,000), under the £30,000/40,000 estimate. He is to exhibit 60 works from his collection this month at the Russian Art Museum, Kiev. Adamovskiy was also the underbidder on The Herzegovinian on lookout, 1876, a romantic portrait by Vasilii Polenov, which sold to another private collector on the phone for £205,250 ($331,684), more than doubling the estimate of £70,000/90,000. The painting had last sold at Christie’s in London in 1989 for £14,000.

As at Sotheby’s, the strength of the market lay in 19th- and early 20th-century art with attractive provenances. Two small undated Belgian landscapes by Ivan Pokhitonov, given by the artist to the family of the consignor in 1918, sold for ­multiple-estimate prices to U.K. dealers: Pétanque sold for £85,250 ($136,400) against an estimate of £25,000/35,000, and Vaches dans les marais fetched the same price against an estimate of £12,000/15,000.

Other buyers included dealer Mark Kelner, Washington, D.C., who acquired Oscar Rabin’s Violin in the Cemetery, 1970, for £34,850 ($55,760) on a £20,000/30,000 estimate, and Yury Tyukhtin, who bought Aleksandra Exter’s undated gouache A Harbour Scene, for £18,750 ($30,000), within the £15,000/20,000 estimate.

Very little of the session was devoted to modern and contemporary Russian art, and the highest-estimated of these works, Oleg Vassiliev’s A birch grove on the edge of Moscow, 1993, went unsold on a £60,000/90,000 ($98,000/147,000) estimate. “We didn’t avoid contemporary art, but it is one angle of this market that is suffering,” Tiesen­hausen said.

MacDougall’s realized a total of £7.1 million ($11.7 million) in its auction of 19th- and ­20th-century Russian art on June 11. With 142, or just over 50 percent, out of 281 lots finding buyers, the results highlighted buyers’ preference for older and more traditional works; the buy-in rate increased rapidly in the latter stages of the sale, which were devoted to Postwar and contemporary art. Co-chairman Catherine MacDougall told ARTnewsletter that while she had kept the Postwar section smaller than last year’s, the estimates were much the same.

Heavy Bidding from Kiev Collector

The sale benefitted from particularly hefty bidding from Alina Aivazova, wife of the mayor of Kiev, Leonid Chemovetsky. Aivazova, sitting with an art adviser who occasionally had to restrain her from bidding, bought three of the top four lots (and many others), paying a number of record prices and accounting for at least half the value of the sale.

Among her purchases were Ilya Repin’s Portrait of Madame Alisa Rivoir with a Lapdog, 1914, for which she paid a record £1.4 million ($2.3 million) on an estimate of £800,00/1.2 million; Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin’s Maternity, 1922, bought for a record £1.1 million ($1.8 million), the low end of the £1.1 million/1.8 million estimate; and Kustodiev’s undated Portrait of the Artist’s wife Yulia Kustodieva, acquired for £493,438 ($812,198), more than double the estimate of £150,000/200,000.

It was another measure of the sharp rise in this market that the Repin had previously sold at Sotheby’s in London in 2002 for £210,000; the Petrov-Vodkin at Sotheby’s in London in 1994 for £2,600; and the Kustodiev at Sotheby’s in London in 1999 for £90,000—all to different purchasers, according to auction house co-chairman William MacDougall.

Another top lot was Still Life with Mimosa, an early work by Goncharova, which, though unsigned and with no exhibition history, came with certificates of authenticity from three different experts as well as a report from the paint analyst Nicholas Eastaugh. The work sold to a phone bidder for £513,438 ($845,118), within the £400,000/600,000 estimate.

“The Russian market is down from its peak a year ago,” said William MacDougall in a statement, “but this week’s results show the worst is behind us.”

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