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Saturday 19 April 2008
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Market news: From the Russian underground

Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 19/02/2008

Colin Gleadell rounds up the latest developments in the art market

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    An exhibition by three very different Russian artists, who all suffered at the hands of a repressive Soviet regime, opens today at MacDougall's, the specialist Russian art auctioneers in St James's, central London. Legends of the Russian Underground seeks to highlight artists about whom stories are told, but very little is on record.

    Alexandr Kharitonov, Angel by the Church, 1973
    Alexandr Kharitonov's Angel by the Church, 1973

    Evgeny Rukhin was an abstract painter who was burned alive in his studio in 1976, aged 33. Some say he was too outspoken and was murdered by the KGB.

    Vasily Sitnikov, a painter of landscapes and surrealistic erotic nudes, was sent to Siberia during the Second World War for using German drawing paper, and was labelled insane. In the 1980s he emigrated to the US where he died in 1987, aged 72. Some paintings in this show were rescued by a neighbour from the skip into which his belongings were tossed after his death.

    Alexander Kharitonov was an alcoholic and a jewel thief before he converted to Christianity and incurred official disapproval by making mosaic-style paintings of Byzantine subjects with angels.

    In the past 18 months, MacDougall's has set auction records of between £100,000 and £200,000 for all of these artists' works. Those prices have led to numerous owners - diplomats and journalists who bought the works in Russia, or former girlfriends - to approach MacDougall's with a view to selling. The exhibition is timed to coincide with specialised contemporary Russian art sales in London at Phillips de Pury next week, and at Sotheby's next month.


    Tucked away in a daytime sale at Christie's during the main Impressionist and modern art sales this month was the most successful auction of all - the collection of the American artist and member of the so-called "School of London", R?B Kitaj, who died last year. Every lot was sold, reaping £6.2 million, double the estimate.

    Works on paper by fellow School of London artists Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach were particularly sought after. A slightly risqué drawing of Francis Bacon by Freud trebled estimates to sell for £468,500 to London dealer Ivor Braka, and a charcoal self-portrait by Auerbach sold to Renaissance sculpture dealer Danny Katz for another triple estimate of £423,700.

    Both were records for works on paper by the artists. Among the few works by Kitaj was the portrait Marynka Smoking, illustrated on this page two weeks ago, which set a new record for the artist, selling to art adviser Susannah Pollen for £513,300 - five times the estimate.

    An exhibition by the young figurative painter Reece Jones sold out before it opened this month at the Dickinson gallery in Jermyn Street, central London. Fatal Attempts at Re-entry had a sci-fi feel, with works rendered in a style between Georges Seurat and Edward Hopper.

    Prices for the luminous works, made with layers of charcoal on paper, ranged from £2,000 to £25,000, and buyers came from the UK, US, France and Belgium. The show closes on Feb 29.

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