LONDON—Sales of Russian art hit a high of £29 million ($55.4 million) at Sotheby’s on May 31 and June 1, the latest in a string of record-setting auctions. Demand from Russian buyers has sparked a surge in overall auction volume as well as price levels for individual artists in recent years. Russian billionaires competed, as anticipated, for 19th- and early-20th- century paintings. The surprise element of the sale, however, was a small section of nonconformist, dissident art of the 1970s and ’80s. This area of the market has been conspicuously quiet since Sotheby’s groundbreaking 1988 sale of Russian contemporary art in Moscow, where Elton John was among the buyers.
A trove of 19 paintings from the collection of Polish Count Marek Potocki— who, according to Sotheby’s catalogue, managed a large multinational corporation in Moscow in the 1980s—tripled the low estimate at £669,200 ($1.3 million). Seven paintings belonging to a former French diplomat in Russia, which were estimated to fetch around £86,000, sold for £766,000 ($1.4 million). Festive Mosaic, a pair of 1988 pictures by Eduard Gorokhovsky, whose work has never appeared at auction before, brought £176,000, or $330,880 (estimate: £40,000/60,000). In this diptych Gorokhovsky depicts official photographs of Soviet leaders Stalin (made from minuscule images, like pixels, of Lenin) and Brezhnev (made with tiny images of Stalin) in a style that pays homage to Andy Warhol.
Another notable result was for a group of four 1970s drawings, Where Are They?, by Ilya Kabakov, whose conceptual art was shown recently at the Serpentine Gallery, London. Last sold at Sotheby’s Moscow sale in 1988 for £16,000, the drawings brought £254,000 ($477,520)—more than ten times the high estimate. Clearly this is a market to watch.
“We have witnessed today a market characterized not only by solid demand in the traditional sectors, but also by the promise of new growth,” says
Jo Vickery, head of Sotheby’s Russian department. “The biggest surprise of the day was in the Russian contemporary art section, which saw some of the most ferocious bidding from new clients, who brought in almost half the auction records established in the sale. This area has lagged behind the traditional areas of the market and augurs well for its future.”
New Record for Aivazovsky
For The Varangians on the Dnieper (estimate: £1.5/2 million), by Ivan Aivazovsky (1817-1900), a private Russian buyer paid £1.74 million ($3.3 million), among the highest prices for more traditional Russian fine art. Vickery called the results “spectacular” and hailed the new artist’s record set for Aivazovsky.
A pair of Russian Imperial porcelain vases from the period of Nicholas I (1825-55) was the top lot of the sales, earning £2.8 million ($5.3 million) from an anonymous buyer (estimate: £1.2/1.8 million). And View of Orianda on the Southern Shores of the Crimea, 1833, by Nikanor Gregorievich Chernetsov (1804-79), took £848,000 ($1.6 million), also from a private collector from Russia and far above the estimated £200,000/300,000.
Another top lot by Aivazovsky, Shipwreck off the Black Sea Coast, 1887, took £814,400 ($1.5 million) from an anonymous buyer (estimate: £600,000/ 800,000).
Among artists’ auction records: Sunset on the Black Sea, by Mikhail Fedorovich Larionov (1881-1964), fetched £792,000, or $1.49 million (estimate: £300,000/500,000); The Last Day, by Viktor Elpidiforovich Borisov-Musatov (1870-1905), sold for £702,400, or $1.3 million (estimate: £200,000/300,000); and Alder Grove-Tver, by Boris Israilovich Anisfeld (1879-1973), realized £579,200, or $1.1 million (estimate: £100,000/150,000). According to informed sources, both the Musatov and Larionov works were acquired by an agent said to be bidding for an unnamed Russian billionaire.
Sotheby’s holds two London sales of Russian art each year, in May and December. Last year’s London sales of Russian art together totaled £38 million ($68 million), compared with the recent figure of £29 million for a single series.
The annual turnover for Russian art has increased 14-fold in the last five years, from £4 million in 2000 to £56 million in 2005, Sotheby’s reports. The house dominated the most recent round of New York sales, taking $54.4 million, compared with $15 million at Christie’s. The latter holds two sales of Russian art annually, in New York in April and in London in November.