Russian art displayed strength in the face of adversity at last week’s skimpier than usual London sales, where buyers plumped for traditional values in preference to the modern and contemporary.
The omens had not been propitious for this market, which witnessed the biggest boom of any art sector prior to last year, when plummeting oil prices and stock markets saw a reduction in the number of Russian billionaires from 105 to 31, according to Forbes magazine.
Last November’s sales in London had realised £48.6 million, half that of the previous year, and some of Moscow’s biggest art and antiques fair this year have been cancelled. After the first day of sales, it was questionable whether there was any life left in the market at all. A sale at Bonham’s, which saw most of the more expensive paintings failing to sell, was rescued only by the high performance of some early 19th-century cavalry officer’s swords, one of which sold for £120,000.
But things picked up when Sotheby’s, then Christie’s and specialist auctioneers MacDougall’s all hit their pre-sale targets with, generally, better works more reasonably estimated. Here it was notable, in spite of the abject state of the Ukranian economy, how many Ukranian buyers were to the fore. Perhaps they consider art to be the safest place to put their cash – those who have cash to spare, that is.
At Sotheby’s, father and son team Alexandre and Sergei Tabalov, described variously as collectors, dealers, and owners of Ukraine’s newest auction house, Art Kapital in Kiev, were active bidders, and came away with one of the top-selling lots, a colourful Impressionist painting of girls dressed in white gathered around a candlelit piano in the early evening by Nikolai Petrovich Bogdanov-Belsky. The romantic image fetched £349,250.
Ukrainian businessman Andrey Adamovskiy of the Inter-Regional Investment Union, Kiev, bought the top lot at Christie’s, an American modernist-style view of rooftops in a Finnish village, c1920, by Vasilii Shukaev for £690,850, double the low estimate. Adamovskiy, who has kept his collecting under wraps until now, will be exhibiting about 60 19th- and early 20th-century works from his collection at the Kiev Museum of Russian Art later this week.
The most conspicuous Ukrainian buyer was Alina Aivazova, the wife of the mayor of Kiev, who went on a spending spree at MacDougall’s. Aivazova is by all accounts new to art collecting and sat with an art advisor, a huge bear of a man who occasionally restrained her from bidding by putting his ample arm around her.
Nevertheless she bagged most of the highest selling lots, paying record prices in the process. Snapping her fingers in the air, and sometimes keeping her arm raised throughout the bidding (a rare sight these days), she bought a large 1914 painting of a reclining nude by the great Ukrainian realist artist, Ilya Repin, for £1.4 million — above the estimate and far above the previous record for Repin.
A few lots later, she bought a more modern looking, angular portrait of a pregnant women, Maternity, 1922, by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, for a record £1 million. After a brief pause she then accounted for the fourth highest price of the day, buying another turn-of-the century reclining nude, this time by Boris Kustodiev, a student of Repin, for a double estimate £493,438.
The £1.4 million Repin had previously cost just £210,000 in 2002, the Kustodiev £90,000 in 1999, and the Petrov-Vodkin a mere £2,600 in 1994. At Sotheby’s, another Kustodiev painting — this one of a village fair, nostalgic for pre-revolutionary days — which had been bought in 1995 for £46,600, made the highest price of the week, selling for a record £2.8 million. So some sellers were very happy.
However, more contemporary art was not so sought-after. The fizz that surrounded the opening earlier in the month of the Ukrainian Pavilion in Venice, sponsored by Damien Hirst collector Victor Pinchuk and attended by the likes of Naomi Campbell and Bianca Jagger, seemed to have evaporated at Sotheby’s auction of Contemporary Russian and Ukrainian art, where fewer than half the works were sold.
By the end of the week, just over £30 million had been realised by the four auctioneers involved, compared with £72 million last summer, when resistance to higher prices first began to be felt. But with many fewer lots on offer and roughly seven out of each 10 of them in the traditional sectors finding buyers, the mood was by no means oppressive. And when the likes of Adamovskiy and Aivazova sprang into action, it occasionally felt just like the old times.