By John Helmer, Moscow
The semi-annual Russian art sales in London this week have finally responded to the laws of economics and politics. But softcore girlies and boy’s buttocks drew better than their estimated money shots, demonstrating that even on the eastern front, making love, not war, is still good for the art house.
The crowds were much the same in number as last year in each of the salerooms. But they weren’t bidding with the same gusto, at least not in public. Christie’s has announced it sold £5.4 million; that compares with £24 million at the June  sale a year ago, and £20.2 million in November . Sotheby’s says its auction this week took in £10.9 million, compared to £9.7 million last November , and £23.8 million a year ago . MacDougall’s reports sales this week were £2.7 million, compared to £7.8 million last November, £10.3 million in June of 2014. Bonhams, historically the smallest of the Russian art houses, had the smallest inventory on offer. It made sales of £1.04 million this week, compared to £1.7 million in November; £5.6 million in June of 2014 .
According to William MacDougall, the impact of the Ukraine war, sanctions, and scarce liquidity are all obvious now. “But there were a number of very active new buyers with good results for a number of important lots, such as the Ivan Shishkin which sold for 700,000 pounds.” The price was well under the £900,000 estimate. MacDougall’s reports 46% of lots sold; at Christie’s the proportion was 63%.
Two big-ticket paintings by Ivan Aivazovsky, the 19th century seascapist, were pulled from Sotheby’s (below, left) and MacDougall’s (right) at the last minute. The Russian Interior Ministry has said the work consigned to Sotheby’s had been stolen in 1998; Sotheby’s claimed it had not been listed on any register of stolen art. MacDougall declined to say why it withdrew its Aivazovsky.
Christie’s celebrated a new record for the 19th century Georgian painter, Niko Pirosmani, whose Arsenal Hill at Night, fetched £962,500. That was at the bottom end of the estimate range, and the buyer was Georgian politician, Bidzina Ivanishvili, who was purchasing for the national patrimony. Christie’s also claimed its sell rate has improved slightly over the November auction, even though (maybe because) prices have fallen.
A Russian art specialist says the supply and demand drivers in the market can’t be gauged directly from the auction results this time, or by comparison with previous years. He acknowledges that increasing numbers of Russians are trying to get paintings out of the country for fast cash in London. That’s a response to the worsening economic conditions in Russia, and to the shortage of bank credit for Russian borrowers. He cited the case  of Alfred Kokh (right), a former head of state asset privatization, who was caught at a Moscow airport last month attempting to export works by well-known Russian artists at false valuations.
At the same time, the source admits, the buyers for this supply are also Russians, who still have the money to spend. The source claims to know of several high-value sales between Russians in the offing. “If they went through the public bidding process, they would transform the results picture. The hammer prices in the auction room aren’t a reliable guide to the market, ” he adds.
Another source believes there is now price resistance at the £500,000 mark among the public bidders. Below this price there are plenty of bargain hunters. But for them clocks and bibelots appear to be fetching better value for price, and offering less resale risk than paintings because the latter are widely believed to have been over-priced in the past two years.
Christie’s sold these two St. Petersburg Faberge clocks from the 1899—1903 period, both by Michael Perchin, and both at double their estimate. The left clock fetched £194,500; the right, £98,500.
Sotheby’s  didn’t do half so well with its clocks. A Faberge timepiece of 1890 failed to find a buyer at £150,000.
The porcelains were another loser for Sotheby’s. This one, with a spitting image of myself,
produced by the Komintern Porcelain & Faience Manufactory in 1923, was offered at a steal between £8,000 and £12,000, but there were no takers.
Sotheby’s auction of pictures was fortunate that softcore erotic by Pavel Tchelitchew and Zinaida Serebriakova, both painting in the interwar period, drew excited bidding. A glossy rear shot of matador testicles and bull’s buttocks – sorry, the vice is versa (below, left) — fetched £677,000, three times estimate. Tchelitchew is known for his Greek, er Spanish taste, as were the original buyers of such work.
Serebriakova’s Study of a Sleeping Girl, carefully rouged the face of the youngster, applied lipstick, removed her pubic hair, and posed her body to make sleep quite improbable. The combination might still attract the attention of policemen and customs officers in some parts of the US and UK. Boris Bakhmeteff, the ambassador to the US of the Provisional Russian Government and a wealthy engineer, took it off Serebriakova’s hands for $500 when she was desperate to pay for food.
A dealer source claims to know that the girl in Serebriakova’s portrait was an innocent 12 at the time – that’s 1923 — and that if the colour on her checks and lips wasn’t natural, it may have been added to the painting after Serebriakova had finished, and Bakhmeteff took over. The source concedes the appeal of the picture may be in the perving, not the paintwork. According to Sotheby’s sale note, “Sleeping Girl is one of the last masterpieces of Serebriakova’s Russian period and can be seen as a prelude to the series of stunning nudes which she would go on to produce in France.”
Bonhams  provided more adult content with this reclining lady by Lev Tchistovsky.
The house started with a pitch in its catalogue for £15,000, but then on sale day amended that to announce “this lot is offered as ‘Attributed to Lev Tchistovsky’ with revised estimate 5,000-8,000 GBP.” Noone got up for it.