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Billionaires Lured by $86 Million Russian Sale’s Nudes, Icons

Preview by John Varoli

June 7 (Bloomberg) -- A reclining nude portrait, Orthodox icons and Faberge jewelry are lined up to attract Russian billionaires in London sales this week that may raise as much as 59 million pounds ($86 million).

Four auction houses -- Sotheby’s, MacDougall’s, Christie’s International and Bonhams -- hope for a continued recovery in prices as collectors arrive in the U.K. capital, the main center of Russian art sales.

“Russia’s economy is clearly in recovery and oil prices are up,” William MacDougall, co-director of MacDougall’s, said in an interview. “The main dark cloud is the Greek debt crisis. While it raises problems for euro-denominated assets, it should be good for fine art, which is a safe haven.”

Collectors from emerging markets such as Russia and China have been buying the best examples of their countries’ art heritage at recent sales, while the other international Impressionist and modern works have been selling for record prices.

“Classical 19th-century paintings continue to be the strongest sector,” MacDougall said. “Early 20th-century modernism is also strong where good provenance trumps authenticity concerns.”

The four auction houses raised 29.1 million pounds during London’s Russian week in 2009, half that of the year before. In April this year, Sotheby’s and Christie’s in New York sold $18.5 million in Russian art.

“The sales results in 2008-2009 were nothing like as bad as doom-mongering merchants were predicting,” said London-based collector and dealer James Butterwick. “The words to describe the market are consolidation, stability and improvement.”

‘Dark Wood’

Sotheby’s has Faberge works and Imperial porcelain among 615 lots with a presale top estimate of 28 million pounds. The most expensive is Ivan Shishkin’s oil on canvas “The Dark Wood” (1876), which may make 1.5 million pounds.

A pair of Imperial porcelain vases from 1841, part of a German collection, has a top estimate of 1.2 million pounds. This is the first time the vases are up for public sale.

“Many works are on the market for the first time and several are new discoveries,” said Jo Vickery, head of Russian art at Sotheby’s in London.

MacDougall’s, which specializes in Russian art, offers 553 lots with a presale estimate of as much as 15.9 million pounds. The top item is by Georgia’s Niko Pirosmani, whose “Arsenal Hill at Night” has an estimate of 900,000 pounds to 1.2 million pounds.

Swiss Collection

Vasily Polenov’s landscape “Boat on the River” (1879), from a Swiss collection, is for sale for the first time in more than 70 years with a top estimate of 650,000 pounds.

Nikolai Roerich’s “The Black Gobi” (1928), from a U.K. collection, could fetch as a much as 700,000 pounds.

Christie’s has 552 lots with a top estimate of 11.2 million pounds. Its top lot is Mikhail Klodt’s “Riverside Farm” (1858), with an estimate of 700,000 pounds to 900,000 pounds. Zinaida Serebriakova’sReclining Nude” (1930) has an estimate of 400,000 pounds to 600,000 pounds.

Bonhams offers 258 lots with an estimate of as much as 4 million pounds.

(John Varoli writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

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

Last Updated: June 6, 2010 19:00 EDT