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Russian Art Market Strives to Stay Afloat at London Sales

The Russian art market was treading water in London earlier this month, as the four main auction houses ran up a combined total of £44.6 million ($69.6 million) for a series of sales offering Russian paintings, icons and works of art.

LONDON—The Russian art market was treading water in London earlier this month, as the four main auction houses ran up a combined total of £44.6 million ($69.6 million) for a series of sales offering Russian paintings, icons and works of art. The combined estimate for these sales was £43.5 million/53 million.The comparable series peaked in November 2007 with close to £100 million ($200 million), but fell to just over £50 million ($75 million) in November 2008, and then to £40 million ($64 million) last November.

The sales were marked by high buy-in rates and almost uniform failure of any of the fine-art sales to reach their estimates. In comparison, the works of art sections of the sales—Fabergé objects, for example—performed best in this respect.

Dealers said the results did not reflect the underlying health of the market. “It’s flattening out, but it’s quite healthy,” said James Butterworth, a London-based dealer in Russian art. “If you stripped out the padding, the results would have looked much better.” Ivan Samarine, a consultant on Russian art for Bukowski’s auctioneers, explained, “Russian art became very expensive during the boom. Some collectors found equal value in Impressionist and modern art, and switched to more international artists.”

The week opened at Christie’s on Nov. 29, when a healthy 73 percent of pictures were sold, but the highest-valued works struggled to meet estimates, resulting in a £6.3 million ($9.8 million) total, below the £7.7 million/11.2 million estimate. The two highest-estimated works, at £800,000/1.2 million each, were Impressionist-style paintings by Konstantin Korovin and Petr Konchalovsky. Korovin’s A Lady in White Seated in a Garden, 1915, and Konchalovsky’s Versailles. L’Allée, 1908, both sold at hammer prices below estimates to reap £892,450 ($1.39 million) and £881,250 ($1.38 million) with premium, respectively.

A portrait of an African tribeswoman, Aoua, Femme Banda, ca.1925, by Alexandre Iacovleff, was one of numerous works by the artist on offer that week, and sold below its £750,000/950,000 estimate for £601,250 ($939,153).

Works of Art Sell Within Estimate

Russian works of art, though only 69 percent sold by lot, hit the £5 million/7.3 million estimate with a £5.8 million ($9 million) total. Imperial Fabergé items did well. A jeweled gold and guilloché enamel snuffbox with painted miniature fetched £937,250 ($1.5 million), compared with an estimate of £400,000/600,000—a record for a Fabergé snuffbox with miniature.

Russian billionaire collector Alexander Ivanov was actively acquiring works for his Fabergé museum in Baden-Baden, Germany, spending £1.8 million ($2.8 million) at the sale. His top buys were a jeweled gold and guilloché Imperial snuffbox by Friedrich Koechli, ca. 1890, which sold for £505,250 ($789,201) against an estimate of £250,000/350,000; a silver-gilt mounted guilloché enamel and bowenite Fabergé clock, ca. 1899–1908, which sold for £385,250 ($601,761), compared with an estimate of £200,000/300,000; and a gold-mounted guilloché enamel Imperial snuffbox, ca. 1908–1917, which fetched £97,250 ($151,905) on an estimate of £100,000/150,000.

Dealers who wished not to be named also said there was less of an issue over provenance and authenticity with the paintings at Christie’s than at Sotheby’s, where a two-part daytime picture sale on Nov. 30 reaped £6.9 million ($10.8 million), below the £8.9 million/12.8 million estimate. Here only six of the top 15 lots estimated to fetch over £100,000 were sold.

In its part one sale, the top lot, The Kuli-Kulta Dance, Niamey, 1920, by Alexander Yakovlev (Sotheby’s and Christie’s use alternative spellings for this artist’s name—see above “Iacovleff” reference) sold to a Russian private collector on the phone for £937,250 ($1.5 million), compared with an estimate of £800,000/1 million, but four other works by the artist with estimates ranging from £35,000/150,000 were unsold.

Jo Vickery, Sotheby’s specialist in charge, said that results for 19th-century works were the most encouraging. A sombre canvas, Alexei Bogoliubov’s The Eve of Celebration, Santa Maria della Salute, Venice, 1867, topped estimates, selling to a Russian buyer for £881,250 ($1.37 million) on an estimate of £400,000/600,000, while a rare ceramic sculpture, The Assyrian, by the influential Mikhail Vrubel, sold for £181,250 ($282,750) on an estimate of £30,000/50,000, to another Russian buyer.

One of the strongest sections of Sotheby’s two sales, in terms of percentage of sales if not big prices, was for early-20th-century ballet material, particularly stage sets and designs for Diaghilev by Alexander Benois. As at Christie’s, though, Sotheby’s £3.4 million ($5.3 million) works-of-art sale on Dec. 1 sold within estimate (£3.2 million/4.6 million).

Afterwards, Vickery said the results should be seen in the context of the more successful, $10.6 million sale in New York held four weeks earlier. “It was part of our global strategy to offer modern Russian art during the Impressionist sales in New York,” she said, even though it meant relinquishing a higher-value evening sale in London.

Bonhams, with the week’s smallest Russian sale, was the only one to exceed estimates, taking £3.4 million ($5.3 million) on an estimate of £1.1 million/1.5 million. Here as at the other houses, the works-of-art section led; Bonhams’ sale-by-lot ratio, 75 percent, however, was the week’s best.

The intended star of the sale, a portrait of King Solomon by Nikolai Roerich, 1923, was unsold with an estimate of £300,000/400,000, but an elaborate coral and onyx round table, once housed in the Imperial Palace in St. Petersburg, made a record for any piece of Russian furniture, selling for £916,000 ($1.4 million).

The week ended with MacDougall’s, which held the biggest Russian sale—over 600 lots, most of them paintings and watercolors with an estimate of £17 million/24 million. The sale produced the two highest prices of the week—a record £6.96 million ($10.85 million), compared with an estimate of £500,000/700,000, paid by a Russian buyer for a 1940s portrait of a boy, The Little Cowboy, by Nikolai Fechin, an artist who lived in New Mexico and California from the 1930s, and whose works were commonly sold in American art auctions until the boom in Russian paintings.

The other big price was the £1.9 million ($3 million), compared with an estimate of £900,000/1.2 million, for an early work, View of Valaam Island, Kukko, 1860, by Ivan Shishkin.

However, the unsold rates that had affected the paintings sections of the previous sales of the week also affected MacDougall’s, and some 58 percent of works were bought in, leaving total sales of £16.2 million ($25.3 million), which was nonetheless, the highest of the week.

“In general the time of Russian buyers bidding for works of art without much consideration for their quality and price has gone,” said Iana Kobeleva, a director of the Aktis Gallery in London.

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