By John Helmer, Moscow
For one day in London every June and December, the Russian assets which regularly pass through greased palms on terms dismal for their repetitiveness, are of a beauty to make you forget the damage the trade does to the country and its people. The Russian Art Week auctions are the occasion. The results are an indicator of the price the Russian market, and also the foreign one, place on this beauty.
The auction houses claim not to know who buys and who sells. In fact, they keep the identities and addresses secret. That’s because the money for which the art works were exchanged may have been dishonestly come by at the start, hot in transit, and laundered now.
“Optimism for the future of Russia is at an all-time low”, commented a well-known London art dealer this week. “People with money are escaping and buying art. The good news about this week’s prices in London is that they could have been much worse. A bigger group of Russians is now buying at lower prices per work, so the cumulative total is a big one for the auction houses. You could say that the best Russian art is better priced to be more affordable if you are rich but not super-rich.”
A Russian art market source adds: “economic distress has always been good for the Russian art market. What you see today is that the old classes of St. Petersburg aristocrats and Moscow merchants who fled a century ago are now selling what they took with them to remind them of the country they left behind. Their heirs feel no sentiment towards Russia, or they are hostile. The buyers are also Russians on the run, but they are still sentimental. The paintings sold this week are being swapped between Russian exiles. They aren’t going back to the motherland. The state isn’t buying, and most people are too poor. The rich are buying for walls of chateaux in France and English country houses.”
For the last survey of the market after Russian Art Week in November-December 2016, click to open . For a comparison of this week’s results with those of June 2015, when the demand and price had collapsed, read this .
For Simon Hewitt’s invaluable market assessments, plus price data, click to open . According to Hewitt, this week’s results  indicate there is a stable demand for good pictures from Russians with money, but uncertain expectations from sellers, foreign or Russian, of how much money to ask for the best pictures. “Consignors remain the problem: the catalogues were almost totally bereft of big-ticket numbers. Owners of major masterpieces still do not see the market as strong enough to offer them for auction.”
Sotheby’s reports that its sale fetched £9.9 million. This compares with £10.9 million in June 2015; £13.8 million last December. The top-priced pictures at the Sotheby’s auction were both by Isaak Levitan, “Summer” (below, left) and “Overgrown Pond” (right), and both were sold at £908,750, fractionally below the minimum estimate of £1 million. Levitan painted them in 1881 and 1891, respectively.
At Christie’s , the new auction total reached £5.1 million. In June 2015 it was £5.4 million; last December, £4.5 million. The best price was £281,000 for a 1932 work titled by Konstantin Somov “Matin d’été” because he was in Paris when he painted it. The PR department of the auction house told Russian reporters: “stunning statistics prove that the interest in Russian art is gaining momentum. As before, the majority of buyers (70%) were Russian-speaking, but 30% of lots were sold to foreign clients.”
Compared to Sotheby’s and Christie’s, MacDougall’s remained  in third place in the amount of money traded for paintings. However, with total auction proceeds this week of £4.5 million, the house beat its previous best  — £2.7 million in June 2015; £3.7 million six months ago. Konstantin Korovin’s painting, “Quai de l’Amiral Courbet, Villefranche-sur-Mer” (pictured below) set the highest price on the day. Painted in 1922, Korovin was in French exile by then. The work was sold by an unidentified owner who had bought it from Sotheby’s in 2002. The price of the new sale, £629,700, was 57% above the top estimate MacDougall’s had given before the auction.
“I believe that this result demonstrates that the Russian art market is recovering rapidly. We see a great level of activity on the part of buyers, collectors and art dealers,” commented William MacDougall.
Bonham’s trails the troika with proceeds of £1.5 million. Historically the smallest of the Russian art stalls in London, Bonham’s new result is an improvement over £1.04 million in June 2015 and £1.1 million last December. Here is the catalogue, with results . These included two fine pictures by Dmitri Stelletski; the one pictured below was Bonham’s best-seller:
“We are happy,” said Daria Chernenko of Bonham’s. “During the auction there was a lot of recovery, more than in previous times, and this partly characterizes the situation in general in the market.”
Dealers say the best measure of success at these auctions is the percentage of lots sold. On this measure, Sotheby’s led with 80%; Christie’s followed with 77%; and MacDougall’s with 53%. Bonham’s reports 60% clearance. James Butterwick, a London dealer specializing in Russian and Ukrainian art, told Tass  the number of unsold lots was very small. “This is a positive outcome. The market is growing, the recovery that we saw last year continues. Although at the time of these trades, none of the lots reached £1 million, the total volume of sales was larger than last year.”
Lot clearance is a measure of how well the auction house has calibrated its supply with the market demand; and also the price which works consigned for sale are likely to fetch in present market conditions. The value of the picture sales is a measure of what buyers, principally now Russian buyers, can afford; and also the price they believe will grow in future.
Denis Lukashin, a leading Moscow art expert and co-owner of Art Consulting, which advises Russian buyers on authentication of works and market pricing trends for individual artists, said yesterday: “Frankly speaking, the expectations were higher. There was no record set for prices nor was there high demand. In comparison with last year’s auctions in London this one was worse. Usually, the interest of art investors is low in summer, and this auction was a kind of risk [for the sellers]. As for me, I was expecting such result. Russian art abroad is usually popular among Russians who live there. So we can be sure that the pieces of art which have been sold will take their places in the houses of Russians living abroad.”
MacDougall’s believes this assessment is mistaken. “The majority of our buyers live in Russia,” William MacDougall says. “Although they sometimes buy for second homes in the West, the majority of the art we sell is shipped to Russia. As the majority is sourced in the West, this means we are returning the heritage. London is the world centre for Russian art at auction, as it is for French, Dutch and many other fields of art; this says nothing about the nationality or residence of the buyers, but rather about where they like to buy. London is the international centre for banking and insurance, as well as auctions.”
This week’s buyers have shown they are willing to pay premiums for works which have Crimea in the title and show scenes of the Crimean coast, hinterland, or scenes of Crimean history. Sotheby’s sold several late-19th century canvasses by Ivan Aivazovsky. The one titled “Ship off the Crimean Coast” (lead image, left), painted in 1881, was sold for £87,500, 49% above the estimated top. Another Aivazovsky seascape, inscribed Odessa 1868, fetched £320,750; it had been estimated at a maximum of £180,000. A third Aivazovsky, titled “The Bay of Naples”, was sold for £52,500, at the bottom of its estimated range between £50,000 and £70,000.
However, Aivazovsky’s “Greeting an American Ship” (lead image, right), estimated between £40,000 and £60,000, failed to sell at all.
“I expect the ‘Crimean theme’ will be a red rag for a long period of time,” Lukashin observes. “The popularity of such works of art depends on the political views of the buyers. Nevertheless, the auction houses themselves are still trying to avoid the ‘Crimean theme’”.
In the run-up to this week’s auctions, MacDougall’s promoted an early work by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, titled “Portrait of an African Boy” (below, right). According to the promotional materials, “he painted the masterpiece in 1907 during a two-month trip to Algeria and Tunisia.” The house set a reserve price range between £400,000 and £600,000 on the work. But there was no taker.
Left: Boris Grigoriev, Portrait d’un jeune garcon, 1930s – sold by Christie at £257,000, almost double the reserve price and the second best-seller for the house. Right: “Portrait of an African Boy” by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin.
“The Petrov-Vodkin is a fine work but it was mistitled for the sale,” commented a Moscow art collector. “If it had been called ‘Portrait of a Student of Lumumba University visiting Yalta’ it might have reached the record the auction house was after.”