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IS THE RUSSIAN ART MARKET SINKING FOR LACK OF CASH?

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By John Helmer, Moscow

If the London art market is a test of reality, then last week’s Russian Week sales demonstrate that Russian buyers are poorer, and there is now less Russian money for buying Russian paintings, jewellery, porcelain and other art objects than at any time since Russian Week started in London in 2005.

Some dealers say there is another test of reality, and that’s the quality of the art, not the supply of cash bidding for it. According to James Butterwick, “Russian art has always been over-valued. People are now putting reasonable estimates on their items with the result that more will sell.”

Last week’s sale results from the four auction houses – Sotheby’s, Christie’s, MacDougall’s and Bonham’s – totalled £17.2 million. Simon Hewitt, international editor of Russian Art + Culture, reports [1] this is “less than half the £40.7m generated by the corresponding Russian Week in late 2014, and down 18% on the £21.2m taken at Russian Week in June 2015 (even though all four firms staged slightly larger sales this time out, with the total number of lots on offer up 20% from 888 to 1069).” Hewitt explains the reason is “a host of calamitous factors — the weak ruble, increasingly isolated Russian economy, terrorism, Syria.”

William MacDougall, whose eponymous gallery has also held auctions in the interim between the regular June and December Week series, said the high prices already paid are deterring re-sale as free cash has evaporated, and Russian investors can no longer count on a rising price trend in future. “There has been a trend towards wealthy Russians moving to London, from Moscow, and that has led to a trend of buying also moving from Moscow Russians to London Russians. Meanwhile overall selling is down, as sellers are reluctant to sell at reduced prices, and buying reflects the weak Russian and disastrous Ukrainian economies.”

MacDougall reports that last week his auction fetched £2.2 million, counting both pictures and objects. The leader was Isaak Levitan’s painting, “High Water” (lead image, painted in 1885), which sold for £325,500. The seller was an Israeli, who unloaded two Levitan works whose father had acquired them in the 1920s; the second sold for £157,800. Together with the takings from the sale of Soviet art in October [2], MacDougall’s has achieved a total of £6 million over the past six months.

James Butterwick, William MacDougall

James Butterwick, William MacDougall

Including both paintings and art objects Sotheby’s led the Russian art sale market with takings reported last week of £9.2 million. That includes [3] paintings which fetched £6.8 million; and jewellery, icons and other objects totalling £2.3 million [4]. The top lot was this effort (below) in the jolly peasant genre by Abram Arkhipov, “Peasant Woman in a Red Dress”, dated 1922, and sold for £905,000. Sotheby’s says it was selling from the collection of a Swiss living in Basel, who picked it up at auction in 1979. Sotheby’s thought the work was worth £250,000 at most, adding that Arkhipov, from a Ryazan peasant family himself, had abandoned the miserable washerwomen he had painted before the 1917 revolution, and had begun to idealize the peasantry in “a world apart”.

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Christie’s managed total sales of its Russian works on offer of £5.3 million, with a relatively weak demand for paintings, and a stronger one for objects. The house has issued no press release [5], and is proposing no new auction date for Russian art.

Bonhams [6] turned out to be the weakest of the London auction houses, with takings of just £522,750.

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Source: Simon Hewitt

Hewitt reports “the overall 2015 auction total of £42.7m remains by far the lowest ever recorded – a whopping £27.9m short of the next worst figure of £70.8m posted in the ‘crisis’ year of 2009. A rare piece of good news: the percentage of lots sold climbed 2% to 56%. MacDougall’s market-share remained stable at 13% but Bonhams’ decline continues apace: their sale total of £523,000 was the poorest ever recorded by a firm during Russian Week, and their market-share – which used to hover at around 8% – has collapsed to just 3%.”

Yekaterina Kartseva, co-owner and founder of Privatecollections.ru, says this month’s London results aren’t bad.

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“I believe that the situation which occurred at the beginning of the crisis for the purchase of art is gradually levelling out. Those who previously were in the market for buying expensive art, continue to buy it. But there’s another thing — art is becoming more accessible in price. These aren’t the famous artists, and in Russia there are tens of thousands of them. Many who began collecting in the 2000s and gathered, for example, Russian avant-garde of the early twentieth century, have now shifted to the so-called avant-garde of the second wave (non-conformist artists of the 1970s). Price is cheaper and growth rate is faster. Certainly, we are all very affected by the crisis. Although officially none of the artists or collectors will reduce prices, of course in personal contact with collectors, many of them are willing to cut their prices.”