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Russian Art Snapped Up in $65.6 Million Auction, Best in a Year

By John Varoli

Dec. 4 (Bloomberg) -- Four London auction houses sold 39.7 million pounds ($65.7 million) of Russian art in four days of sales this week as wealthy collectors returned to the market after a year of declines in prices and demand.

The total was an increase of 37 percent over the market’s low in June when Bonhams, Christie’s International, MacDougall’s and Sotheby’s sold 29 million pounds of Russian art.

“The week’s results confirm the market’s recovery,” said William MacDougall, co-director of MacDougall’s. “Oil prices have gone up, economies are picking up, and people again have money to spend and need to put it somewhere.”

While the total missed estimates of as much as 55 million pounds, it was the most for any series of Russian sales for a year. Sotheby’s in New York sold $13.8 million of Russian art on Nov. 2. 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.

Billionaires are looking for bargains as their wealth rises, dealers said. 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.

Sotheby’s had the highest total. It sold 19.4 million pounds of Imperial heirlooms, Faberge items and 19th-century and 20th-century paintings. The U.S.-based company sold 74 percent of 540 lots that had a top presale estimate of 21.2 million pounds.

Sale Totals

MacDougall’s, which specializes in Russian art, finished second, selling 9.4 million pounds of paintings and icons that had a low estimate of 12.5 million pounds. Christie’s sold 70 percent of 570 lots for 8.9 million pounds, below a top estimate of 9.3 million pounds. Bonhams sold 1.9 million pounds of Russian paintings.

“The market has two locations and realities,” said Ildar Galeyev, owner of Galeyev Gallery in Moscow. “There’s the Moscow market, where we don’t see signs of recovery since the crisis began. Then there’s London where we see the market growing. Russians prefer to buy in London for a number of reasons, for instance, they have more trust in the major auction houses.”

MacDougall’s finished first in the week’s main category, 19th- and 20th-century paintings, with sales of 8.6 million pounds. Sotheby’s finished second in paintings with 8.4 million pounds, and Christie’s sold 4.2 million.

Buddhist Monk

MacDougall’s had the week’s most expensive lot, Nicholas Roerich’s modernist “Sangacheling” (circa 1924), which sold to a Moscow collector on the telephone for 1.13 million pounds on a top estimate of 700,000 pounds. The oil-on-canvas work shows a Buddhist monk meditating in the mountains.

MacDougall’s, founded in 2004 by a wife and husband who formerly worked in the City of London, also sold a nude picture by Zinaida Serebriakova to a Ukrainian collector for 1.1 million pounds, which was the low estimate. It was the week’s second most expensive item.

On Nov. 30, Sotheby’s in London sold all 108 lots from an heirloom collection that once belonged to Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna, wife to Emperor Alexander III’s brother. The auction raised 7 million pounds on a top estimate of 900,000 pounds.

Sotheby’s most expensive item was Alexandra Exter’s “Venice” (1925), which sold for 1.05 million pounds on a top estimate of 1.2 million pounds.

On Dec. 2, Christie’s sold Roerich’s “Legend” (1923) -- showing another medieval scribe standing on a mountain -- for 993,000 pounds, beating a top estimate of 900,000 pounds.

On Nov. 30, the most expensive lot at Bonhams was Ivan Aivazovsky’s “The Morning Catch” (1870), which sold for 378,000 pounds, exceeding a top estimate of 250,000 pounds.

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

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

Last Updated: December 3, 2009 20:31 EST

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