While much of the art world’s attention this month is focused on Art Basel and the major upcoming Impressionist and Modern sales, last week’s sales of Russian art in London brought impressive results across genres and periods.
Alexander Yakovlev’s Titi and Naranghe, Daughters of Chief Eki Bondo (1926) was the week’s most expensive lot, selling at Sotheby’s on June 7 for £2,505,250 ($3,621,840), or more than three times the pre-auction estimate of £700,000–900,000.
While most of the media attention has focused on early 20th century Modern Russian art, Contemporary works also fared well. MacDougall Auctions, a small London-based auction house that specializes in Russian art, hosted the week’s largest sale of contemporary Russian works. Among the highlights was Oleg Tselkov’s Matador and a Bull (1937), which sold for £120,231 ($173,818). At an art investment conference on June 3 hosted by the London Business School, the auction house’s founder, William MacDougall, said that, “Russian Contemporary art, while recovering from its recent correction, remains a great buying opportunity.”
Still, it was works from the 19th and early 20th centuries that brought the greatest levels of interest and, consequently, the highest bids, signaling a continuing market recovery.
An interesting test of how much the market for Russian fine art has recovered was the sale of Yuri Pavlovich Annenkov’s Portrait of Zinovii Grzhebin (1922, pictured left), which carried a pre-auction estimate of £800,000–1,200,000 and, according to Sotheby’s catalogue, was “a striking example of Yuri Annenkov’s distinctive style and undoubtedly one of the most important works by the artist ever to appear on the international market.” The work ultimately sold for £1,777,250 ($2,569,370), or more than 70% above the mid-range estimate assigned by Sotheby’s.
Annenkov, a Russian artist who left the Soviet Union in 1924 for Germany and later France (where he died in 1974) and known primarily for his book illustrations and portraits, is certainly not among the most highly valued Russian artists; of his top ten auction sales, only one has exceeded $1,000,000 in valuation. Still, the majority of his works sold at auction in recent years have far exceeded their high estimates.
Portrait of Zinovii Grzhebin is the second most expensive work by Annenkov to ever sell at auction, after Portrait of Aleksandr Nikolaevich Tikhonov (1922, pictured below), which sold at Christie’s in November 2007 for £2,260,500 ($4,625,537). Both works, created in the same year and remarkably similar in style, depict prominent literary figures of the time and thus serve as near perfect comparables.
At first glance, especially for those who follow the market in U.S. dollars, this year’s sale came up well short of the record price achieved in 2007, when many sectors of the art market, including the Russian market, were nearing their peak. But considering that the pound sterling is trading considerably lower vis-à-vis the U.S. dollar than it was in late 2007, the results don’t look so drastically different.
Portrait of Aleksandr Nikolaevich Tikhonov sold for £483,250 more than Portrait of Zinovii Grzhebin. Though the works on sale were a considerably better deal in U.S. dollar terms this year than in 2007 (given the 30% decline in the pound sterling), they were only relatively less expensive in Euros and rubles given the less drastic appreciation of those currencies compared with the pound sterling. No one knows who ultimately purchased Portrait of Zinovii Grzhebin; nor do we know how the buyer measures his or her wealth. If rubles or Euros provide the measure—quite likely given that Russians are widely known to be the primary buyers at London’s Russian sales—then this year doesn’t look that bad at all from the perspective of market recovery.
To view the top sales of Annenkov’s works, please visit Skate’s Art Market Research.