The Russian Art Market……Country House magazine, Issue No 3., May 2007.

Feb 13th, 2010 | By | Category: Articles

‘Russian Art Revolution,’an introduction to the emerging Russian art market, Country House magazine, Issue No. 3, May 2007.

A sleeping bear awakes

Anyone working in upmarket real estate, oil, gas, diamonds, timber, mining or metals will already be aware that the Russians have arrived. The marriage between Russia’s vast natural resources and Western markets is creating some huge fortunes. Oleg Deripaska in aluminium, Vladimir Potanin and Mikhail Prokhorov in metals and Mikhail Fridman, Roman Abramovich, Leonid Blavatnik and Viktor Vekselberg in oil and gas are among the better known.

Although it is less than twenty years since the fall of Communism the rapid arrival of the Russians in the West and their appetite for the finer things in life, including art, comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with Russian history. Peter the Great (1672-1725) travelled widely and imported art and Western culture into Russia, and the Hermitage in St. Petersburg stands as Catherine the Great’s (1729-1796) legacy.

The Demidovs, Vorontsovs, Yussupovs and Sheremetevs filled their palaces with European art, while Pavel Tretyakov preferred Russian paintings and bequeathed his entire collection to the city of Moscow. In the early twentieth century Shchukin and Morozov were early champions of Picasso and Matisse. At the end of World War II, Stalin ‘rescued’ an estimated three million art objects from Germany which today live in Russian museums and other depositories. These artworks were valued at over US$65 billion by the German government in 1997 and have clouded European politics ever since.

Art always follows the money. In the eighteenth century the art market was dominated by the English aristocracy, who visited Italy on their ‘Grand Tour’ collecting Renaissance masterpieces; Chatsworth was filled by the Duke of Devonshire and Woburn Abbey by the Duke of Bedford. In the nineteenth century it was the turn of the American Robber Barons such as Frick, Morgan and Mellon. Now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the art market is evolving once again and the most rapidly developing markets are those of China, India and Russia.

The Russians are just beginning to buy Western art and are starting with the best-known names. In May 2006 an unidentified Russian walked into Sotheby’s New York and bought Picasso’s Dora Maar au Chat for a cool $95 million. Rumour has it that he outbid Steve Wynn, Leslie Wexner and Paul Allen in the process. The buyer has at different times been speculated to be Roustam Tariko, a Moscow-based banking and vodka billionaire or Alexander Abramov, a steel magnate worth US$2.8 billion, according to Forbes.

However, what the Russians really want is their own heritage. Until recently the Russian art market consisted of a few paintings inserted into the general nineteenth and twentieth century sales. The first all-Russian sale happened in London only two years ago and now Christie’s and Sotheby’s are selling over one thousand lots a year, spread over four sales in New York and London.

Christie’s most recent Russian sale, on April 24th 2006, totalled over US$15 million with 136 of 193 lots finding buyers, a 70% success rate. Sotheby’s, the current market leader, at its sale on April 26th 2006 sold to a value of US$54.4 million, the highest total to date for a Russian sale. The top lot was Roerich’s Lao-Tze, which sold for US$2.2 million, more than seven times the pre-sale estimate of US$300,000. Auction records were set for Yakovleff (a little over US$1.8m), Bogdanov-Belski (nearly US$1.4m) and Vereschagin (around US$1.5m).

Although developing fast, the Russian art market is less than twenty years old and prices are often a fraction of those for Western art. Good paintings can still be bought for US$100,000 and exceptional ones US$250,000. The quality of the painters is on a par with their Western counterparts, as even in Soviet times there was an excellent system of art schools. Russian collectors dominate the market and only recently have a few Westerners begun to take an interest.

In brief, Russian art can be roughly divided into a few areas: the nineteenth century realist school is dominated by artists such as Repin, Shishkin and Levitan, while the pre-revolution period saw the rise of the ‘Avant Garde’ painters like Malevich, Popova and Kandinsky. This period also produced the first generation of Russian Impressionists such as Gorbatov, Zhukovsky and Korovin.

After the revolution Lenin, and later Stalin, outlawed the ‘Avant Garde’ and closely controlled artistic output for use as political propaganda. The political kitsch of this period is an acquired taste. Less well known is that there are some superb artists from the Communist period.

Stalin’s death in 1953 ushered in a period known as the ‘Krushchev thaw’ that allowed the emergence of the Moscow school and includes such great artists as Korzhev, Plastov and the Tkachev brothers, sometimes referred to in Russia as the second generation of Russian Impressionists. This movement is almost unknown in the West but contains some terrific paintings for the more intrepid collector.

Other areas starting to attract interest are the so-called ‘Non Conformist’ works of the Soviet era and contemporary art. Sotheby’s had their first sale of this period on 15th February 2007 and raised US$5.17 million, selling over 80% of the 113 lots. The top lots were Evgeny Chubarov’s Untitled of 1992 at £288,000 and Erik Bulatov’s Revolution – Perestroika of 1988 at £198,000.

The Russian collectors have until now mainly been collecting the more internationally established artists of pre-revolutionary times and are only just starting to look at the art of the Soviet period. Russia’s richest woman, Yelena Baturina, wife of Moscow’s mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, is reputed to be a major buyer of Russian art at the auctions with a particular interest in Imperial porcelain. Viktor Vekselberg, who controls the Renova group with his partner Leonid Blavatnik, buys through the US$100 million Aurora Fine Fund and has been acquiring artists such as Repin, Konchalovsky, Aivazovsky and Vereschagin. In April 2004 Sotheby’s planned an auction to sell the nine jewel-encrusted Fabergé eggs belonging to the Forbes Collection. Vekselberg pre-empted the sale and bought all of them for a reputed US$110 million, working closely with the Kremlin who agreed to waive all import duty and taxes.

The Russian art market is the Wild West of the art world. As with all young markets it is important to take the best independent advice, as not everything is what it is purported to be. Dealing with the Russians is not difficult once you understand they are only interested in today and have little belief in the future. For those who are prepared to invest some time and effort in their art buying there are some outstanding painters still available at modest prices.

Tags: Ivan Lindsay, Russian art market., Russian collectors, Russian paintings

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