By John Helmer, Moscow
The price of Russian art this week at the bellwether London auction house sales has risen by more than a third over a year ago, signalling that more money is available to spend, with more confidence that Russian paintings will more than hold their value for investors in the year ahead. While Americans and Europeans were the big-ticket sellers, sources in the bidding rooms say the biggest spenders were Russians.
The four major London auction houses for Russian art are Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Bonham’s and MacDougall’s. They schedule twice-year sales in the summer and winter, and their results have been traced here. A year ago, the London Russian Week results were headlined by the auctioneers as a case of the market sinking for lack of cash.
TOP-4 AUCTION HOUSE RESULTS FOR RUSSIAN ART WEEK, LONDON, DECEMBER 2015
Source: Simon Hewitt, Russian art+culture
This year’s total sales result represents a jump of 34% to £23.1 million. Sotheby’s was the biggest gainer in money and market share. It reports a total sale of £13.8 million, for a 60% share. Compared to December 2015 Christie’s performed poorest of all four houses with a sale total of £4.5 million, and a market share shrinking to 20%. MacDougall’s grew in money and market share — £3.7 million, 16%; while Bonham’s bagged the biggest cash gain to double its proceeds to £1.1 million; this is a 5% market share.
Sotheby’s reported its best selling paintings were works by the Russian avant-gardists of the post-revolution period, Alexander Rodchenko and Ilya Chashnik. Rodchenko’s “Construction No.95” of 1919 (pictured below, left) was sold for £3,646,250, a fraction above the auction house estimate. The biggest surprise – that’s to say, the gap between the pre-sale estimate and the sale bid — was Ilya Chashnik’s “The Seventh Dimension, Suprematist Relief” (early 1920s – below right). It had been forecast between £100,000 and £150,000; it fetched £2,408,750. For more on the controversies surrounding the recent sales of Chashnik’s works, read this.
Two other works by Chashnik were also sold by Sotheby’s, but at much lower prices, and closer to the house estimates. Other Russian avant-garde painters of the 1910-1930 period, Nikolai Suetin, Nikolai Malevich, Antonina Sofronova, and Lazar Khidekel also sold small pieces above Sotheby’s initial estimates.
Of the nineteenth century painters, Ivan Aivazovsky’s seascapes continued to do best, especially if they were titled as off the Crimean shore (pictured below, left); another of Aivazovsky’s works, showing Jesus Christ walking on Crimean waters, was bid up and sold at £162,500, more than three times the estimate. There was also demand to pay high prices for Ukrainian scenes, including one by Alexander Deineka entitled “In the Donbass” (1954). Nudes always do well at Russian art auctions, but this one (below, right) set a record for a Novorussian display of the thing.
Christie’s did best out of a poor show with another Aivazovsky shot of Crimea, £209,000 for “Gravskaya Wharf, Sebastopol”. The top-seller in the Christie’s auction was Konstantin Korovin’s “Woodland Brook” (1900s) for £317,000. ArtInvestment.ru, a Moscow website, reported ahead of the auctions that “Christie’s, which has been successfully selling art in the upscale segments, has become for some time frankly lazy in its Russian auction. Its catalogue of Russian art has been getting thinner… in general, it is clear — the margin is getting smaller, and headaches more and more. Do not be surprised if two of the three top lots will not find a buyer.” In the event, all three failed to sell on the day.
Bonham’s Russian catalogue this week has been heavier on objects than paintings. But the sale results proved to be double the proceeds of a year ago — £1,112,500 compared to £522,750. The top lot was a jewel casket at £185,000 (below, left), followed by a punch bowl and cups for £100,000. The top-priced painting at £62,500 was Vladimir Molochkov’s brand-new work, “Svolochi”.
A London buyer commented that “very, very poor quality was the reason” for Bonham’s poor showing in Russian paintings. An American market source commented: “Bonham’s is an also-ran. Occasionally an exceptional work falls in their lap and they do well on the back of one painting, but most of the time they don’t get the works, and they are less careful about what they do take.”
MacDougall’s reported a gain over last year of 55%, with “lively bidding in all sectors of the market, from 19th century to contemporary Russian art.” According to the press release, “MacDougall’s proved itself as the undisputed leader in Russian art of the Soviet period. The market continues to show good signs of recovery this year.” Here’s the catalogue.
Lev Lagorio’s “Bathing in the Crimea” (lead image) had everything the current Russian market wants – 19th century, Crimea, nudity – and fetched £182,000. But in price it was surpassed by works of Ivan Shishin (1866, £456,900), Yuri Pimenov ((1975, £449,100), and Alexander Yakovlev (1929, £320,500). A heavily touted painting by the mysticalist Nicholas Roerich, “St. Mercurius of Smolensk” (1919), on sale from a New York collection and estimated at £500,000, failed to clear. “While the market did decline last year,” William MacDougall commented, “there is a lot of reason to think it’s been in recovery this year. There was a lot of buying interest in June, a much better atmosphere than last December. And we have been doing a lot of private deals the last few months. I’m optimistic.”
The London results proved to be better than experts on the Russian art market in Moscow had been predicting. “The whole market of art has been unstable since 2008,” says Dmitry Butkevich, head of the culture department at Kommersant Radio. But for the Russia Week in London “I expect 30% to 50% of the estimated price. Of course, 6 to 8 years ago the price was higher. Now we can speak about a ‘cooling’ of the demand for Russian art. But lower prices are good for buyers, who are going to invest their money in pieces of art. In the international market Russian art was always ‘cheap’ – there are maybe 30 cases, when the piece of art was sold higher than for a million dollars or pounds. The usual buyer of Russian art is a Russian living abroad. I don’t think the interest in Russian art has risen in the West.”
James Butterwick, a London dealer specializing in Russian and Ukrainian paintings, was one of the bidders at Sotheby’s whose bids were topped. He says the rivals were all Russian. “I am never a great believer in statistics except the one that denotes the number of lots sold. That increased slightly in June 2016 from a low in November The auction houses greatly reduced the estimates with the result that a higher percentage of lots sold, not including those sold post-sale. With a decrease in total sales usually comes a decrease in the number of commercial lots.” Ahead of this week’s sales Butterwick said the Sotheby’s auction “is of vital importance. They have managed to put together a very serious collection of avant-garde which may well see some high prices.”
A Russian study of the price trend in the Russian art market reveals that even if a recovery in demand and price has begun this week, it has far to go to reach the two peak years, 2008 and 2012. These two charts have been published by ArtInvestment.ru. Konstantin Babulin, chief executive of ArtInvestment.ru, explains that the indexes are compiled from statistics on the sale of Russian paintings from the London houses, as well as from the Moscow market and sales worldwide.
15-YEAR TREND IN RUSSIAN ART PRICES
Key: blue=paintings; violet=graphics; red=consolidated index
“It’s a very difficult exercise,” comments MacDougall, “trying to compare like with like, and while it is true that June 2008 was a peak, and 2012 another peak, I think the graphs overstate the fall since 2012 and that it’s not so clear about 2012 versus 2008. Certainly we continued to have world record prices after 2008, so it was clearly not the peak for all artists.”
Denis Lukashin, an expert on the Russian art market and co-owner of the Moscow-based Art Consulting group, says the trend chart “has a simple explanation. The peak of prices for pieces of art in the entire world was the period of 2012-2013. Today’s downward trend has begun in 2014. American and British markets became unstable. The offer price became high but the demand became low. The lowering trend reached 15% to 20% in 2015, and 30 % in 2016. The reason is that investors were losing interest in art.”
“Russian art prices were also influenced by the Crimean spring, and by sanctions against Russia. Russian laws prohibiting the export of art older than one hundred years caused a loss of 50% to 60% on the internal art market. These laws have created a situation in which Russian art has almost disappeared from markets abroad, such as the British and American. The pieces, which are being sold on these auctions, had been taken abroad before. The prices on them are high. But the usual buyers of Russian art are Russians. And it is more beneficial to buy pieces of Russian art here in Russia, where the supply is very high and the prices are low. Nowadays the whole market of art shows the signs of recovery. I can’t predict the results of the London auctions exactly, but I’m sure there will be no price record.”
What happened this week in London is that a revival of money demand among Russians lifted the prices of works being sold out of foreign collections. According to MacDougall (right), “In general, Russian art is like American — only Americans buy the latter as only they are willing to pay the premium relative to French or Dutch art, to support their own nation’s heritage. There are some exceptions, such as Russian avant-garde and non-conformist art, both more widely appreciated [among non-Russians] than Russian figurative art, or icons which have not yet had as much a price appreciation as other sectors. Sometimes we get Arab buying of Russian Orientalist art.”
According to MacDougall, “overall I’m pretty sure that most of the buyers are still Russians, and mainly Russians living in Moscow. It’s Russians with money, but not necessarily the same Russians who had money a few years ago. Ukrainian buying used to be significant factor — about a quarter of our buyers from both sides of the political divide there, but less so since their economic collapse.”