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by John Helmer, Moscow 

Russian pictures for which the owners paid millions of pounds or dollars aren’t put up for sale, and buyers won’t pay that much money in the London auction houses if the auction rooms have been closed and are likely to stay that way for the rest of the year. But this week the Russian art market is showing unexpected strength of demand, nonetheless.

Online auctions by Sotheby’s and MacDougall’s have revealed that bidders pushed prices for the best paintings and best-known painters well above their pre-sale estimates. Roughly the same proportion of pictures was sold from the catalogue as the auctioneers managed at Russian Art Week in London last November. Still, the number of lots on offer is down, as is the number of big-ticket paintings.

The auctioneers themselves say the reason for the positive trend is that fresh, young bidders  have come into the market for Russian art. They aren’t investors looking for speculative profit margins or safe haven for money on the run from bank fraud and other stealing schemes. The Russian art market is also becoming more competitive on the selling side, as new online internet platforms are expanding the number of Russian artists, especially those living outside Moscow and St. Petersburg, whose work can now reach an international audience and greater appreciation.

The rationale for the twice-yearly Russian Art Week at the major London auction houses has been to capitalise on low-cost money looking for a safe and preferably a high rate of return, hidden from Russian taxation. The rise and fall of the best-known collectors of Russian art can also be followed here.  

Left: Boris Mints; for the archive of stories on his business and his art, click. Centre: Alexei Ananiev; seizure of his art collection is reported here. The London Guardian has been laundering Ananiev’s court record. Right: Yves Bouvier, the Swiss art dealer whose trading with Sotheby’s for Russian collectors, has triggered litigation in Europe, Asia, and the US. Read more. For a chronicle of Russian art collectors advertising their respectability with their artworks, read this.

When creditors, police and courts are in hot pursuit, and when the price of oil and the index of Russian stock prices drop, the most expensive Russian paintings disappear from the market; Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and MacDougall’s can’t fetch multi-million-pound record prices for Russian name artists; the price of  everything for sale declines. The story of how the value of Russian art is joined to the price of oil and the Moscow stock exchange index has been told here.


The Moscow Exchange has registered the MICEX Index, MOEX Russia Index and the RTS Index" as trademarks of Moscow Exchange. Source: https://tradingeconomics.com/

The moving line shows that when the last Russian Art Week took place in London last November, money was feeling as optimistic as taste. The chart also shows why until this week Russian art experts were far from confident in anticipating what would happen when Sotheby’s and MacDougall’s launched their online sales.

“For the art market, the sudden transition to online, as a consequence of the global pandemic, was, if not a tragedy, then a test of strength,” reported Oleg Krasnov in Kommersant. “Of course, every one from galleries, art fairs and auction houses to collectors and artists has been affected by the closure of public spaces and the introduction of quarantine measures. But those who still managed to invest in the cloudless period and to some extent develop their own internet projects were able to continue their business behind closed doors. This includes many international galleries that created viewing rooms on their websites, where you could view works for sale in a virtual room in 3D format.”

The London auction houses, Krasnov added, “were probably the best prepared for the transition to virtual space — heavyweights Christie’s and Sotheby’s have been conducting online auctions for nine years and four years, respectively, so it was not difficult for them to change the format. However, even for them, major losses in the current conditions have been inevitable: auctions on the Internet, as a rule, do not include sale lots at million-dollar prices, and all the evening auctions, where the largest and most expensive works were exhibited, have been canceled.” Krasnov was reporting before this week’s results were announced.

“In all senses, the upcoming Russian Art Week will be unreliable,” predicted Denis Belkevich (right) of Art Investment.ru last week.  “After a decline in sales of Russian art in 2015-2016 caused by the sanctions against Russia and economic instability, and commencing in 2017,  there has been a revival in London’s Russian Art Week.  From 2017 to 2019, the volume of sales of Russian art auctioned at the four major London auction houses — Christie’s, Sotheby’s, MacDougall’s and Bonhams — has grown by 16.68 %. In the first auction of 2019 sales exceeded the result of the previous auction held in November 2018 by 2.6%. However, cautious experts have explained this by the sale of ‘Still life with lilacs’ by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin at Christie’s auction for $11.76 million; that provided 25% of the total turnover.”

Ahead of this week’s auction, Belkevich asked, “will success meet a showdown, as hedonistic collectors tire of quarantine and face misfortune? Will there be no real indication until the first live auctions resume with open borders and reestablished air travel?”

Sotheby’s claims success. “The first ever flagship sale of Russian Pictures to be held online closed yesterday,” announced the house press release, “bringing in a total of £5.6 million / $6.9 million. Comfortably exceeding its pre-sale estimate of £3.9-5.1 million, the sale saw over 57% of lots achieve over their high estimates, with 32% more than doubling their pre-sale low estimate.  27% more bidders were active than in November’s Live Russian Pictures Sale…The sale saw Ivan Aivazovsky’s monumental painting The Bay of Naples (Lot 29) soar to £2.3 million / $2.8 million, more than doubling its pre-sale estimate (£800,000 – £1.2 million) and superseding the record set by Giorgio Morandi’s ‘Natura morta’ (Still Life) last week, to become the highest value painting ever sold in an online-only sale.”

Ivan Aivazovsky, “Bay of Naples” (1878). According to Sotheby’s, there were 16 bids for the painting. The competition drove the sale price from the estimated range of £800,000-£1.2 million to £2,295,000.

Sotheby’s claim is qualified. The single Aivazovsky contributed 40% of the total sale proceeds.  The house also offered far fewer works for sale. Last November Sotheby’s auctioned 375 lots, clearing 73%.    This week 144 lots were offered, 72% were sold – the proportion of sales is  roughly unchanged from last November. View the catalogue of works, the offer and sale prices here.

Sotheby’s press release explained what the house is thinking about the online market with a first-ever presentation of statistics on the demand side in its Russian auction. “Nearly 20% of buyers were new to Sotheby’s, and the proportion of first-time bidders was similar. Almost 30% of buyers were aged 40 or under.  The online auction saw an increase of 27% in the number of bidders participating compared to the Russian Pictures live sale held in November 2019. Five bidders competed for ‘The Reigning Monarchs of the World’ by Vasily Shukhaev (Lot 20), which sold for £56,250 – over seven times its low estimate of £8000. Six bidders chased Vladimir Stozharov’s ‘Autumn, Invshino’ (Lot 51) which achieved £60,000 – over ten times its pre-sale estimate, after 35 bids were place online.”

William MacDougall, head of the eponymous auction house, is claiming similar success with relatively young buyers appearing for the first time. According to his press release,   “MacDougall’s 30 May auction, which opened the 2020 Russian art week, proved to be a great success raising over £2 m, with practically all the top lots sold. The classic works by Korovin (£182,000), Gorbatov (£156,000), Sokolov-Skalya (£149,500), and Annenkov  (£100,200), were all sold. The sale rate was healthy at over 50% overall; for contemporary works the sale rate was nearly 70%. New record prices were achieved in this sector with Koshlyakov’s Opera selling for over £93,000. William MacDougall commented ‘It was an historic moment for the Russian market. Our decision to conduct the auction in the traditional format, with an auctioneer and online, commission, and telephone bidding, was vindicated by the vibrant bidding’”.

The MacDougall’s catalogue   offered 250 lots; this compares with 316 last November. According to the results,  the total this week is half the £4 million fetched at the last live auction. This time round 106 lots were sold – that’s a clearance rate of 42%, almost unchanged. The big-ticket effect boosting MacDougall’s record sales totals last year is missing this week.

Does this mean that the online auctions and internet trading are changing the Russian market fundamentally, allowing more art buyers to come in with lower-priced bids, more artists to sell their work, and more galleries and dealers to compete for trade against the big houses?  “It’s still early days,” MacDougall (right) replies. “I think the auction business will return to traditional auctions when we’re past the current crisis, perhaps for the June or December 2021 Russian Week.  As for cost of entry into the market, the value of reputation is even more important when you can’t observe an auction in person; people have to trust that the auction house is honest and above board.  So I’m not sure the cost of entry is going down, though the cost of operating certainly is.  The other implication is for the timing of auctions.  Russian Art Week in London came about because Russians, Ukrainians, and other international buyers came to London for the series of auctions.  If there are no exhibitions due to coronavirus restrictions and they can’t come because of travel quarantines and visa difficulties,  then there is no need to crowd the Russian auctions into one week.  Our next auction will be around the end of September.”

Meantime the domestic art dealers will see international trading online as an opportunity to halt the domestic price slide for Russian art which has been recorded this year.


KEY: Grey=graphic works; blue=paintings; red=all works. Source: https://artinvestment.ru/
Reviews and results: https://www.russianartandculture.com/

Reviewing Sotheby’s and MacDougall’s catalogues, James Butterwick, a London-based Russian art specialist, commented that to his taste, there is a surfeit of landscapes. “In fact, as we now spend our days looking at statistics, the figure is 38 out of the first 52 lots at Sotheby’s and 36 out of the first 75… at MacDougall’s.”  It’s not yet clear whether this is more to the taste of younger Russian art buyers than the older ones.

After describing his personal tour over the Russian landscape looking down the blouse and other parts of “possibly the most beautiful woman on Planet Earth”, Butterwick missed counting the number of Russian nudes in this week’s auctions. That number is dwindling compared to earlier years. There were 11 in the MacDougall’s sale, just 4% of the 250 lots; only three of those sold. Sotheby’s displayed 10 nudes for sale out of 144 lots; that’s 7%. It did better than MacDougall’s and sold  8 of them.

Top: pictures of Russian girls without their clothes which sold at MacDougall’s -- left to right: Sacha Zaliouk, “Lady with Goat”; Pavel Sokolov-Skalya, "Portrait of the Artist’s Wife" ;  Irina Shtange, “The Three Graces”. Bottom: Sotheby’s sold nudes -- Vera Ermolaeva, “Seated Nude”; Boris Anisfeld, “Bacchanal”; Grigory Gluckmann, “Female Nude”; Pavel Tchelitchew, “Burlesque Dancers”.  

Butterwick is unapologetic about his political preference in canvasses to buy and sell. “The yoke of Tsarism,” he reports, has been “exchange[d] for the far worse yoke of Communism”, only to get worse again in the Putin period, “the tragedy of the 21st century”. Butterwick didn’t notice that paintings of Crimea which have been best sellers in the London auctions since 2014 weren’t available this time. MacDougall’s and Sotheby’s offered only one each.

Iosif Krachkovsky, “View of the Crimean Coast” (1902), sold by MacDougall’s for £19,500; Ivan Aivazovsky, Bay of Yalta (1887), sold by Sotheby’s for £15,000; both above the estimate.

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