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    Russian Art Auctions: Records Despite Drop in Volume

    The overall volume of Russian art sales at Sotheby’s and Christie’s London salerooms dipped from year-ago levels, and buyers appeared to balk at aggressive estimates.

    NEW YORK—The overall volume of Russian art sales at Sotheby’s and Christie’s London salerooms dipped from year-ago levels, and buyers appeared to balk at aggressive estimates. However, several new records were set and MacDougall’s, which specializes in Russian art, posted an increase from last year’s £10.6 million total (ANL, 6/28/11), saying its £13 million ($20.2 million) total was its best ever.

    William MacDougall, co-director of MacDougall’s, said: “We are pleased with the results, with all top lots sold, and one of our best Russian weeks ever. The market for high-quality works continues to be strong, while there is growing interest in less expensive works too.”

    Sotheby’s posted a total of £16.7 million ($26 million) for three sales, compared with a total of £21.4 million ($35.1 million) last year. The house’s evening sale on May 28 took in £10 million ($15.8 million) for 38 lots offered. Of these, 25, or 66 percent, were sold. By value, the auction realized 75 percent. The sale was dominated by private CIS buyers, according to Sotheby’s.

    The highest lot was a painting by Natalia Goncharova, titled Still Life (Bluebells), which sold for £2.95 million ($4.6 million), just missing the low end of the £3 million/4 million estimate. Sotheby’s described the work as a “museum-quality” piece that ranked among the most significant paintings by Goncharova ever offered at auction. However, buyers clearly thought the price too high as the final price, with premium, still fell below the presale estimate.

    It was followed by Vasily Vereshchagin’s painting The Spy, which was described as “one of the most stirring and dramatic images from his series of paintings on the subject of the Russo-Turkish war.” It sold for £1 million ($1.6 million) on an estimate of £800,000/1.25 million. Among several artist records realized in the course of the sale, the highest was £361,250 ($567,162), paid for Alexander Gerasimov’s Still Life with Roses, which was estimated at £180,000/250,000 and was bought by a dealer.

    Commenting on the sale, Jo Vickery, Sotheby’s head of Russian art, noted that 12 percent of the buyers in the auction were new to Sotheby’s, adding “with successful bids from the UK, the CIS, the rest of Europe, the US and even Asia, we are also happy with the depth of buying.”

    Other top lots included Vasily Polenov’s painting The Lookout, 1876, which sold for £481,250 ($755,707) on an estimate of £400,000/600,000, and Nikolai Roerich’s tempera on canvas titled Lhamo, 1927, which sold to a private CIS buyer for £601,250 ($944,140), compared with an estimate of £500,000/800,000.

    Christie’s Russian art sale on May 28 achieved £8.3 million ($13 million), also down from the £11.6 million ($18.9 million) total reported last year. The house featured work by lesser-known artists and generally estimated more conservatively than Sotheby’s. Still, three of the highest lots marked new records for the respective artists.

    The highest of these was Léon Bakst’s mixed-media on paper titled The Yellow Sultana, 1916, which doubled the £350,000/450,000 estimate to sell for £937,250 ($1.5 million). Another record was the £713,250 ($1.1 million) paid for Orest Kiprensky’s Portrait of Prince Mikhail Alexandrovich Galitzine (1804-1860), also well above the £200,000/300,000 estimate. Although most of the highest-selling lots were paintings, a gold and guilloché, enamel, imperial presentation snuff-box, 1899-1904, was the fourth-highest lot, realizing £481,250 ($755,563) on an estimate of £150,000/250,000.

    Christie’s London-based head of Russian art, Sarah Mansfield, said the sale “illustrated the continuing health of the market for Russian art.”

    At MacDougall’s, among the highest lots was a record £2.3 million ($3.6 million), paid for Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin’s Still Life, Apples and Eggs, meeting the £2 million/3 million estimate.

    And Mikhail Larionov’s painting, Flowers on a Veranda, 1902, sold for £1.2 million on an estimate of £1 million/2 million. Also a top-seller was Zinaida Serebriakova’s Sleeping Nude (Katya), 1934, which sold for £1.1 million ($1.7 million) on an estimate of £900,000/1.2 million.