Thursday marked the end of the Russian art sales in London, and the results were strong overall. Quality paintings from the late 19th century were in demand, bringing in record-high prices from the packed salesrooms and droves of telephone bidders — however, buy-in rates by lot were also quite high, mostly above 30 percent. The majority of buyers were Russians and Ukrainians capitalizing on the numerous import and export advantages of buying their Russian art in the U.K.
Speaking to ARTINFO following the Christie’s sale on November 29, MacDougall's Auctions director William MacDougall seemed relieved that his competitor’s sales had gone so well. “We were actually worried coming into this auction that we might get some spinoff from the current European crisis, but there doesn’t appear to be any.”
The week of sales began on Monday evening at Sotheby’s with an auction of the house's most important Russian paintings. The sale brought in £5.6 million ($8.7 million), slightly below the £5.8 million ($9.1 million) low estimate, with sell-through rates of 67 percent by lot and 75 percent by value. Two new artist records were set for the artist and stage designer Alexander Golovin and painter Pavel Kovalevsky.
The top-selling lot of the sale was Petr Konchalovsky’s 1916 painting "Tatar Still Life." Five bidders competed for the work, pushing it high above its £500,000-700,000 ($780,000-1.1 million) estimate to a total of £914,850 ($1.4 million).
Ten of the works from the Sotheby’s sale came from the collection of Arthur Ferdinand Hamann, a Latvian lawyer, and all were sold for a total of £2.2 million ($3.5 million), including the two lots that achieved record-breaking prices. Golovin's set design for Act I of "Pskovityanka," which was performed at the Bolshoi Theater in 1901, sold for £31,250 ($49,000) against an estimate of £30,000-40,000 ($47,000-63,000), while Kovalesky's "General Iosif Gurko in the Balkans" fetched £253,250 ($391,752) against an £120,000 - 150,000 ($188,000-235,000) estimate.
On Tuesday, Christie’s sale of Russian art brought in a total of £13.6 million ($21.4 million) on a £17-22 million estimate ($26.5-34.3 million), with a 65 percent sell-through rate by lot and 63 percent by value. The sale total was lower than last year’s £14.9 million sale, but the top few lots achieved higher prices — last year no lot broke the £1 million mark.
As expected, Vasily Vereshchagin's "Crucifixion by the Romans" (1887) — a consignment from the Brooklyn Museum in New York — was the top lot, surpassing its £ £1-1.5 million ($1.6-2.4 million) estimate and reaching a total of £1.7 million ($2.7 million).
Of the top ten lots at Christie's, three of the sums were records for the artists' work at auction. Viktor Vasnetsov's "A Bogatyr" (1920) achieved a price of £1.1 million — more than doubling its £500,000 ($780,000) high estimate. "From a Window of the Old House, Vvedenskoe" (1897) by Maria Iakunchikova sold for £690,850 ($1.1 million), over three times its £150,000 - 200,000 ($233,000-311,000) estimate, and Ivan Pokhitonov's "Sur la Plage" (1895) sold for £409,250 ($637,000), four times its £80,000-120,000 estimate ($124,000-187,000).
The surprise of the week were the two top lots at Bonhams — both by Vasili Polenov — which accounted for two-thirds of the £9.3 million ($14.4 million) sale total (est. £6.9-£9.7 million, $10.7-15 million). The auction did very well at the high end, and achieved a sell-through rate by value of 77 percent, despite the fact that almost half of the nearly 300 lots were bought-in.
The last of the week's sales was the £12 million ($18.7 million) auction at MacDougall’s Thursday. The small auction house, started by a London couple who spotted a gap in the Russian art auction market when it was heating up in 2004, only trades in Russian art and traditionally does enough business to put it in the top three highest-grossing auctions during the London sales, a feat which it achieved again this year.
The top lot of the sale was Boris Kustodiev’s 1923 portrait “Merchant’s Wife,” a subject for which the artist is well known, which sold for £1.84 million ($2.9 million), just exceeding its £1.2-1.8 million ($1.9-2.8 million) estimate. A new artist record was set for Aleksandr Volkov when the painting "Listening to the Bedana," completed sometime in the 1920s, hammered down at £909,000 ($1.4 million), well above its £300,000-500,000 estimate.