LONDON—At fall auctions in New York last month, the art world watched Impressionist, modern and contemporary art sales falling back to the levels of two or three years ago (ANL, 11/25/08). At the end of the month, the same held true for the auctions of Russian art at Sotheby’s and Christie’s in London Nov. 24–27. Sotheby’s realized £25.2million ($37.9million) in four sales, down from the £38.7million ($79.9million) total of last year. Christie’s posted a total of £13.75million ($20.9million) for four sales, a fraction of the £44.9million ($92.5million) total the house took in a year ago.
In total, the Russian art sales, including collectibles, brought £52.8million ($80million), just over half the amount of a year ago and closer to the more realistic levels of 2006. This total includes Russian sales at several other London houses, including MacDougall’s, which took in £8.1million ($12.4 million) for paintings and sculpture; Bonhams, which realized £1.65million ($2.5million) for paintings and works of art; Lyon & Turnbull, which took in £3.2 million ($4.75million) for a Russian silver collection; and Morton & Eden, which realized £1.6million ($2.5million) for Russian medals and other collectibles.
The market for Russian paintings is perhaps especially vulnerable to an economic downturn, because its growth has been exceptionally fast, outpacing even that of international contemporary art. According to Art Market Research, a company that analyzes auction sales results, average prices for works by 100 of the most frequently bought and sold 19th- and 20th-century Russian artists increased by 825 percent between 2001 and 2008. That’s equivalent to a compound annual growth rate of almost 30 percent. Prices for contemporary art over the same period increased by 805 percent, or by 26 percent per year.
Furthermore, most of the buyers have been from the former Soviet Union, especially Russia and Ukraine. This makes the market susceptible to regional economic problems, of which there has been no shortage.
Given this economic climate, sales were better than expected. Although Sotheby’s and Christie’s did not meet their targets, their sold-by-lot rates of roughly 60 percent were quite healthy considering that estimates set last summer bore no relation to the current reality.
“If you still have money, now is the time to buy. There are bargains to be had,” said Natalia Kournikova of the Kournikova Gallery, Moscow, who was the biggest buyer at the sales. Working on behalf of an anonymous Russian collector, she won one of the few bidding battles at Sotheby’s when she bought Vasily Polenov’s 19th-century Orientalist painting Egyptian Girl for a record £1.05million ($1.57million), three times the £350,000 high estimate. At specialist auctioneers MacDougall’s, she met with little competition for the top lot, a suite of erotic illustrations by Constantine Somov, which she bought below the £1.5million/3million estimate for £1.2million ($1.8million). And at Christie’s, too, she bought the top lot—a still life with watermelons by one of the world’s most expensive women artists, Natalia Goncharova, for £1.55million ($2.4million)—again, a shade below the estimate of £1.5million/2million without premium.
Some consignors realized robust profits. At Sotheby’s, Alexander Yakovlev’s Mythological Landscape, 1928, which had been bought in 1996 for £2,500 ($3,800), sold for £145,250 ($216,750) on an estimate of £150,000/200,000, and Flowers on Pink, 1918, a still life by Petr Konchalovsky bought in 2004 for £330,400 ($600,000), sold for £1million ($1.5million) on an estimate of £800,000/1.2 million.
The top price at Sotheby’s was the £1.4 million ($2.1 million) paid by a Russian collector for Mikhail Larionov’s Reclining Nude, circa 1906–7 (estimate: £1.2 million/1.5 million). Kournikova acquired Boris Kustodiev’s painting Winter Scene, 1919, for £133,250 ($198,850) on an estimate of £100,000/150,000. Other buyers included Moscow dealer Georgy Putnikov, who purchased Boris Anisfeld’s painting Flowering Tree for £481,250 ($718,170), far above its estimate of £180,000/250,000. The work was consigned by a descendant of Maurice Dejean (1899–1982), who served as French ambassador to the Soviet Union, and in whose collection it had been for decades. Putnikov also bought The Staircase, an oil painting by Leonid Chupiatov (1890–1941), for £253,250 ($377,925) on an estimate of £100,000/150,000.
At Christie’s part-one Russian sales, Cologne dealer Alex Lachmann bought a painting by Alexandra Exter (1882–1949) of a costume design for Romeo and Juliet, circa 1920, for £265,250 ($407,000) on an estimate of £150,000/200,000. London dealer Ivan Samarine was the buyer of Abram Arkhipov’s oil painting Young Peasant Woman, which he won for £433,250 ($665,000), nearly three times the £150,000 high estimate.
Samarine said that the best-quality works sold well, but added that some estimates had been unrealistically high, and results were unpredictable because “a lot of potential buyers were waiting to see where prices would settle, and not bidding.” And, with six auctioneers offering more than 2,600 works in a week, the market would have been overstretched even in good times, he added.
Strong Demand for Collectibles
There were some impressive results in the works-of-art and collectibles sales. At Sotheby’s, a collection of 100 Imperial and royal presents, including many Fabergé objects, almost completely sold out: the auction was 94 percent sold by lot, and 99 percent sold by value. Many of the items were once owned by Empress Maria Fedorovna, wife of Alexander III, the emperor of Russia from 1881 to 1894. The top lot was a heart-shaped silver-gilt, pearl and enamel frame enclosing a photograph of the empress (estimate: £60,000/80,000), which sold for £229,000 ($351,800).
Specialist auctioneers Morton & Eden posted equally buoyant results for their sale of Russian medals, badges and coins, as did Lyon & Turnbull for a collection of 19th- and early 20th-century Russian silver and enamelwork.