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Mixed Results at Russian Auctions

The city played host to die-hard dealers and collectors with a series of sales of Russian art on Dec. 1–2.

LONDON—The city played host to die-hard dealers and collectors with a series of sales of Russian art on Dec. 1–2. Having reached a peak of almost £100 million ($200 million) in November 2007, London’s Russian sales declined to a total of £53.8 million ($80 million) last November, and to just over £30.7 million ($49 million) last June.

Before the latest series, hopes were high that the total estimate of £40 million/55 million would be met, bringing the decline to a halt; oil prices have been picking up, and economic growth has been predicted. In New York last month, Sotheby’s held a successful Russian sale, and a number of Russians were among the big spenders at the recent sales of Impressionist and modern art.

This London series started off better than had the previous one, in June, with Bonhams comfortably surpassing its £1.14 million low estimate with a £1.9 million ($3.1 million) sale on Nov. 30. The auction featured several paintings by the prolific 19th-century seascape artist Ivan Aivazovsky, whose prices have been adjusted downward since the onset of the recession. It was clear Bonhams had got its calculations right, as all the lots by Aivazovsky were sold, one of them for £378,000 ($619,920 million)—well above the estimate, and the highest price of the sale.

Within hours, the high point of the week was reached at Sotheby’s, which was selling a collection of Fabergé cigarette boxes and cuff-links that had belonged to the Grand Duke Vladimir Alexan­drovich, brother of Tsar Alexander III. After his death in 1909, his widow, the Grand Duchess Maria Pavlova, took possession of them, and when she was forced to leave Russia by the Bolsheviks, left them for safekeeping with a Swedish diplomat, wrapped in two pillow cases. The collection was rediscovered this year, and, estimated for a total of £600,000/900,000 ($988,000/1.5 million), sold for £7 million ($11.5 million) to a mixture of Russian, American, Asian and Middle Eastern buyers.

That pace, however, was not maintained by Sotheby’s main sale of Russian art—usually the biggest producer of the series—which fell ominously below its £8 million/11 million estimate, yielding a total of only £4.1 million ($6.8 million). Of the 16 lots estimated to fetch more than £200,000 ($330,000), ten were unsold. The sale did produce some record prices, though, chiefly the £1 million ($1.7 million) paid by a Russian collector for Alexandra Exter’s Venice, 1925, which was the top lot of the sale. Three years ago the painting, by one of the lesser-known Russian avant-garde artists of the early 20th century, was sold at Christie’s in a sale of Impressionist and modern art for £478,500 ($883,120). Then, in 2007, it was included in “A Time to Gather,” an exhibition of Russian art from foreign private collections held at the State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg. Although she was closely associated with the Paris school of the 1920s, Exter’s work is clearly more valuable, in spite of the recession, when she is positioned as an important Russian artist.

While the market for Russian works of art and decorative art appears to be charging ahead, the market for paintings continues to be “challenging,” according to Joanna Vickery, senior director and head of Russian paintings at Sotheby’s, as owners wait for further signs of recovery before selling.

Nevertheless, for owners who bought before the Russian-art boom, profit levels are still quite heady. At Christie’s on Dec. 1, Le Chasseur, 1885, an Impressionist-style landscape by Ivan Pokhitonov that had sold for £1,900 ($2,964) in 1989 fetched £169,250 ($280,800). One of the top lots, a vigorous 1933 painting of a sleigh ride by Filipp Maliavin, sold for a record £517,250 ($858,000), nearly three times what it had fetched at an auction at Stockholms Auktionsverk in Decem­ber 2004. Christie’s had been conservative in its estimates and less concerned with market share than in the past, and as a result sold 66, or 80 percent, of its 80 picture lots for just over £4 million ($6.6 million).

For MacDougall’s—the relative newcomer to the field, having set up its specialist Russian-art saleroom in 2004—market share is what these auctions are all about. With a hefty catalogue of about 390 19th- and 20th-century works—more than the other three houses put together—MacDougall’s amassed a total of £8.6 million ($14.2 million), outstripping both Sotheby’s and Christie’s in sales volume for pictures for the first time.

A painting by Russian Buddhist artist Nikolai Roerich of a monk in contemplation by a hilltop monastery fetched the highest price of the week, £1.1 million ($1.8 million) against an estimate of £500,000/700,000. However, the casualty rate was higher than at the other houses, with roughly half of the lots going unsold. Codirector Catherine MacDougall told ARTnewsletter she was not concerned, saying that, unlike her rivals, she had been prepared to take risks, especially in the unpredictable market for Postwar and contemporary Russian art.

By the end of week, the tally for the Russian series had come within a narrow margin of the overall low estimate of £40 million ($66 million). This was all the more remarkable, MacDougall said, considering that Ukrainian buyers, normally a powerful force in this market, had largely withdrawn because of political uncertainty created by the impending presidential elections in Ukraine.

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