MOSCOW—Sotheby’s opened a Moscow branch at the end of May, appointing Mikhail Kamensky as managing director of the five-person office on the distinguished Romanov Alley. To celebrate the opening, the company exhibited highlights from its June sales of Russian, Impressionist and modern and contemporary art, including Claude Monet’s Nympheas, 1904, and Francis Bacon’s Self Portrait, 1978.
Kamensky has been a longtime insider on the Moscow art scene, first as an academic and later as an arts manager and analyst. Formerly the deputy director of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, he helped establish Russia’s first auction house and, more recently, served as director and presidential adviser to the Bank of Moscow.
Kamensky likens Sotheby’s entrance into the Russian market to “Gulliver with the Lilliputians.” He further notes that “buying, selling and dealing art is becoming more and more civilized in Russia. At the dawn of this process—late 1980s and early ’90s—the atmosphere was semi-aristocratic and semi-criminal. The consignors were aristocratic and some buyers were criminals—some buyers were businessmen and some were gangsters and some were former gangsters who became businessmen. In my point of view today, 80 percent of all art purchases in Russia are under the table. Sotheby’s comes to this market to do 100 percent legal deals.” Nonetheless he adds, “it is becoming ever more transparent, and there’s a new wave of educated young people.”
Comments Mark Poltimore, U.K. chairman of Sotheby’s: “Misha Kamensky’s been around the art market for many years. We wanted a Russian hire.”
The Moscow branch is intended to serve Russia’s growing community of art collectors. Sotheby’s sold $150 million worth of Russian art last year—up from $9 million in 2001. The house came to realize, Poltimore explains, that Russian art increasingly is being bought by Russian collectors, who are now represented in every major market, from jewelry and antiques to modern art.
“For the moment,” Dimitri Ozerkov, curator of contemporary art for the State Hermitage Museum, told ARTnewsletter, “collectors still go to London to bid on Russian art.”
Other observers point to the market potential in Russia. Sotheby’s Moscow office will be offering a variety of services, from private sales and catalogues to networking and guidance for Russian VIPs. Kamensky is optimistic. “It’s only a matter of time,” he predicts. “We cannot stay out of the art market forever.”