Auctioneers and owners bank on Russian recovery

Reuters, Fri Nov 27, 2009 3:24pm GMT

By Mike Collett-White

LONDON (Reuters) - Auction houses are banking on a recovery at next week's series of big Russian art sales in London, at which they expect to show that the market dominated by new money is through the worst of the recession.

With most at stake are Sotheby's and Russian specialist MacDougall's, who together offer works worth between 27 and 39 million pounds ($45-64 million). Christie's the world's largest auction house, has pre-sale estimates of 6.5-9.3 million pounds.

The figures are sharply down on a year ago, reflecting how financial turmoil and falling stock and property values have hit super-wealthy collectors from Russia and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union and deterred owners from selling their best pieces.

Sotheby's, for example, expected its 2008 winter sales to fetch between 29 and 41 million pounds. The actual result was 25 million, marking a significant drop in values which had soared during the previous five years or so.

This year Sotheby's estimates have halved to 15-21 million pounds, reflecting a more selective pool of buyers and limited supply, as sellers hold out for a return to the heady days of 2007 and early 2008.

"There are less lots on offer," Jo Vickery, Sotheby's senior director, told Reuters. "We've been much more selective in the current economic climate, looking particularly for works with a very good provenance.

"There is considerable demand out there but at the moment, supply is less."

William MacDougall, director of MacDougall Arts Ltd., said he expected prices to continue to recover from recent falls.

"The general theme since April last year is that sellers are reluctant to sell at these levels, unlike, say, holders of equities who have been forced into doing so.

"But the results in October in New York were very good and so we're expecting a continued healthy market next week."

TOP LOT SEREBRIAKOVA'S "NUDE"

He said over 90 percent of buyers were born in the former Soviet Union, and, although London has become the global capital for Russian art, the majority of them were based elsewhere.

His company is selling art valued at 12.4-17.6 million pounds, putting MacDougall's just behind Sotheby's in the pecking order.

MacDougall's also boasts the most valuable single lot of "Russian Week" in London, with an oil painting of a nude female by Russian artist Zinaida Serebriakova expected to fetch 1.0-1.5 million pounds.

Close behind is Sotheby's and another work by a leading 20th century female artist, Alexandra Exter, whose bright-colored "Venice" is estimated at 0.9-1.2 million pounds.

The auction house is also offering a large collection of Faberge cigarette cases and cufflinks that had been hidden in a pair of pillowcases in a Swedish foreign office safe for over 90 years until their recent discovery.

The objects belonged to Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna and her husband Grand Duke Vladimir, brother of Czar Alexander III.

The sale is expected to raise around one million pounds, and a handful of the bejeweled cigarette cases still contain matches and period cigarettes. Estimates range from 80 pounds to up to 90,000 pounds.

The week of Russian sales kicks off with Sotheby's and Bonhams holding their main auctions on Monday and wind up at MacDougall's on Thursday.

(Editing by Paul Casciato)