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Russian Billionaires May Spend $81 Million at London Auctions

By John Varoli

Nov. 30 (Bloomberg) -- Auction houses in London start selling as much as 49 million pounds ($81 million) of Russian art today, hoping that spending by billionaires will help the market further recover after a year of decline.

Sotheby’s sells 19th-century and early 20th-century paintings this evening, followed by another sale tomorrow. Christie’s International holds auctions on Dec. 1, 2 and 3. MacDougall’s, an auction house specializing in Russian art, has sales on Dec. 2 and 3. Bonhams also holds a 168-lot sale today.

In a sign that wealthy Russians are returning to the market, Sotheby’s in New York sold $13.8 million of Russian art on Nov. 2, beating the top presale estimate of $9 million. The Russian government forecasts some economic growth in 2010, after the country’s economy shrank about 10 percent in 2009’S first half as prices declined for commodities such as oil.

“The recent New York sales confirmed a recovery,” said William MacDougall, co-director of MacDougall’s. “It may be a while before volume and overall results recover to the June 2008 peak. We’re clearly past the worst.”

London auction houses form the center of global Russian art sales. Most works are sourced from private American and European collections, while most buyers are from Russia and Ukraine.

“Ukrainian buyers have been important to us from our first auction five years ago,” MacDougall said, “typically 20-30 percent of the market, sometimes more.” In June, MacDougall’s top buyer was Alina Aivazova, wife of the mayor of Kiev.

Topless Woman

MacDougall’s offers 460 lots that have a presale estimate of 12.5 million pounds to 17.6 million pounds. It has the most expensive lot of the week, a picture of a topless woman by Zinaida Serebriakova with an estimate of 1 million pounds to 1.5 million pounds.

MacDougall’s also offers Nicholas Roerich’s modernist “Sangacheling” (circa 1924) that shows a Buddhist monk sitting alone in mountains, and Vladimir Baranoff-Rossine’s “Femme Cubiste” (circa 1920). Both have estimates of 500,000 pounds to 700,000 pounds.

“Russia was a net exporter of art for about 90 years -- 1910 to 2000,” said MacDougall. “There is a lot abroad, and this is now being reversed.”

Sotheby’s offers 540 lots with a presale estimate of 14.8 million pounds to 21.2 million pounds. These include 110 Imperial items, with many works by Romanov jeweler Faberge.

The auction house’s most expensive lot is Alexandra Exter’s “Venice” (1925) with an estimate of 900,000 pounds to 1.2 million pounds. The painting is one of her first works painted in Paris after she fled the Soviet revolution.

Christie’s offers 578 lots that have a presale estimate of 6.5 million to 9.3 million pounds. It has another Roerich painting, “Legend” (1923), showing a medieval scribe standing on a mountain and with an estimate of as much as 900,000 pounds.

The most expensive lot at the Bonhams sale today is Ivan Aivazovsky’s “The Morning Catch” (1870), which may fetch 150,000 pounds to 250,000 pounds. Bonhams hasn’t provided a total presale estimate.

(John Varoli writes for Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer on the story: John Varoli in Kiev at jvaroli@gmail.com.

Last Updated: November 29, 2009 19:00 EST

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