More than 3,000 Russian works of art are to be auctioned in London next week. Art.view identifies the star lots, and predicts a handful of attractive bargains ...
The 2008 autumn art-auction season, barely a month old, has been characterised by two extremes: stacks of unsold works, and a few eye-watering purchases.
Day after day, auctioneers on both sides of the Atlantic have been faced with the dull atmosphere of near-empty salerooms, bought-in masterworks and overpaid guarantees. Only occasionally have bidders snapped to attention, as they did on November 3rd, when an anonymous buyer at Sotheby's in New York paid a record $53.5m ($60m including commissions) for a superb abstract entitled "Suprematist Composition", painted in 1919 by Kasimir Malevich.
That a Russian painting (Malevich was born in Kiev but started painting in Moscow) can still attract that sort of price is a sure sign, optimists say, that the Russian market has been saved from the downturn that appears to be affecting every other sector, from modern and contemporary art to garden ornaments. All three major auction houses--Christie's, Sotheby's and Bonhams--have come to depend increasingly on the clients they collectively call RRs (rich Russians). These are not just oligarchs like Roman Abramovich, the London-based oil magnate who owns Chelsea FC, or Boris Ivanishvili, a mining entrepreneur from Georgia, who in February last year paid nearly five times the pre-sale estimate for a painting called "White Canoe" by Peter Doig, a Trinidad-based Scottish artist who was then almost unknown. At the time it was the highest price ever paid for a work by a living European artist.
Sotheby's, the market leader, has pursued a particularly aggressive strategy, investing heavily in its Moscow offices and marketing energetically to Russian, Ukrainian, Georgian and Kazakh buyers. Its efforts have resulted in a 30-fold increase in sales over the past seven years, to $180.1m in 2007.
Next week that model will face its stiffest test. In a series of sales across London, more than 3,000 Russian works will come under the hammer, ranging from massive romantic 19th-century paintings down to tiny carved Fabergé animals with shiny bejewelled eyes. This market attracts Russian buyers almost exclusively. Just how much the fall in Moscow's stockmarket and the collapse of commodity prices have frightened rich Russians into sitting on their hands will become clear as the sales unfold.
This will be an opportunity for the brave. The high prices that were common three months ago have tempted owners to keep consigning treasures that they have owned for years, which means high-quality inventory is there for the buying. On the other hand, slow bidding means that lot after lot may fail to reach even its low estimate. If the auction houses have persuaded sellers to lower their reserves, this is the bargain-hunter's dream moment.
"Quality, quality, quality. That is the key," says Mark Poltimore, Sotheby's deputy chairman. "We'll have one or two fantastic prices. One or two will disappoint. The middle ground will be much harder to predict."
Bonhams is hoping to draw in viewers with an attractive work based on Aeschylus's "Seven against Thebes" by Alexandra Exter, a Belarusian modernist who taught at the Fernand Leger School in Paris in the 1920s. Christie's is offering a magnificent silver soup tureen commissioned by Catherine the Great. Cast in the shape of a 14-gun warship, it is among the most important pieces of 18th-century Russian silver to survive.
But it is Sotheby's--whose two experts, Mikhail Kamensky and Jo Vickery, have proved invaluable in getting in Russian business--that has the biggest selection on offer.
The cover of the catalogue for its evening sale of Russian painting on November 24th features a lush panorama of Constantinople and the Bosphorus painted around 1856 by Ivan Aivazovsky, a Russian-Armenian artist who became a favourite of both the Russian Tsar and the Sultan of Turkey. Aivazovsky won a long-standing commission to paint the ships of the Russian Navy. His seascapes are so popular he is reportedly the Russian painter whose works are most often forged.
The painting comes with an estimate of £2.5m-3m, which some might consider optimistic, given that a number of works by Aivazovsky have not sold this year and the record price paid for one of his paintings is £2.4m (£2.7m with commissions). In this particular work the light over the city is beautifully rendered, but there is something peculiar about his depiction of the water. Still, Sotheby's hopes it might appeal to a Turkish buyer; there are more than 30 of his works in Turkish public collections, including the Ottoman Imperial Palace, the Dolmabahce Museum.
Several other paintings in the sale are more interesting. A compelling self-portrait by Boris Grigoriev dating from 1915 (estimate: £300,000-500,000) has all the mastery of early Lucian Freud. The bowed window and Modigliani-like face of the figure on the stairs are what mark out Leonid Chupiatov's undated work, "The Staircase" (estimated £100,000-150,000), while Boris Kustodiev's little "Winter Scene" from 1919 is as full of charm and lyricism as Nikolai Roerich's magnificent yellow "Sangacheling" (estimate: £500,000-700,000), which shines with lapidary spirituality. The last two have been consigned by British collectors.
But it is Vladimir Makovsky's "The Rag Market in Moscow" (pictured at top, estimate: £1m-1.5m), a cinematic portrayal of 19th-century Russian street life, that will be watched most carefully. Known only through sketches of some of the figures within it that are part of the collection in the Tretyakov Gallery, this painting lay undiscovered until earlier this year. It was bought in the 1920s by a Danish wine merchant who traded with Russia, and hung in his Copenhagen shop ever since. "If someone gets that for £1m," says Mr Poltimore, "it'll be a bargain."
Alexandra Exter's “Seven against Thebes” did not sell. Neither did Christie's 18th-century silver soup tureen, nor two of the paintings mentioned in the Sotheby's sale: Boris Grigoriev's self-portrait and Ivan Aivazovsky's panorama of Constantinople and the Bosphorus. However, Leonid Chupiatov’s “The Staircase” (estimated £100,000-150,000) sold for £253,250 (including commissions), Boris Kustodiev’s little “Winter Scene” (estimated £100,000-150,000) sold for £133,250, Nikolai Roerich’s “Sangacheling” (estimated £500,000-700,000) fetched a record £825,250, and Vladimir Makovsky’s “The Rag Market in Moscow” (estimated £1m-1.5m) sold for a record £1.3m to a private Russian buyer.