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By John Helmer, Moscow

Since the American war against Russia began in 2014, the market for Russian art has been driven by rich Russians running away, both buyers and sellers, as well as Americans making disposals. This week, in the semi-annual London auctions, there was a surge of demand for the art which American Russia-haters, not to mention the Kremlin and the Russian Church, have reviled, particularly this year. Soviet art – the celebration of the post-1917 values of secularism, republicanism, socialism, anti-imperialism —  hit prices never recorded before. For the first time in the second century of the Russian republic, revolution fetched a higher price than reaction.   

Simon Hewitt, international editor for Russian Art + Culture, said in his October preview of this week’s sales that Alexander Deineka (1899-1969) “threatens [sic] to be the most prominent figure in the London salerooms this November, with two powerful inter-war works each expected to bring around £3m.” :  

In the outcome, MacDougall’s sold Deineka’s “Heroes of the First Five-Year Plan” (lead image) – a work commissioned by the Kremlin for display at the Soviet pavilion in the Paris World Exposition of 1937 – for £2,848,000; this is  a record for the artist who died in Moscow and was buried with state honours at Novodevichy Cemetery. The painting was sold by an American collector. Sotheby’s  “Coalminer” — a work Deineka painted after a tour of the Donbass mines in 1925 – failed to sell at its estimate of £3.5 to £4.5 million.

Sotheby’s first-ever auction of Soviet art ended up with a sales total of just £2,086,500. MacDougall’s produced a result of £9,851,485.   MacDougalls also set a record clearance rate – 76% of its 321 lots sold. The MacDougall results can be opened here.  Sotheby’s sold 61 of 122 lots, 51% clearance.  

They are not exactly comparable as MacDougall’s combined its Soviet with other Russian art while  Sotheby’s separated the auctions for its Soviet works;  its non-Soviet “Russian pictures”, which fetched a total of £10,339,150;    and its Russian art objects and icons, which sold for £1,810,688.   The grand total for Sotheby’s for its Russian art came to £14,236,338. 

Christie’s led McDougall’s but trailed Sotheby’s at its Russian auction this week with a total sales sum of £13,278,500. This included objects as well as paintings, The avant-gardist Natalia Gonacharova topped at Christie’s with a still life painted in 1914; it sold for £2.4 million. Soviet art works were almost absent from the catalogue, given no prominence, and set no records. For the full results, click to open

Click for comparisons with the Russian art auctions in London for June 2017  and December 2016.   For the first revolution in Russian art, the realist painters’ break with the tsar’s academy, read this

“Sotheby’s,” said a Russian art specialist in London yesterday, “overpriced its Soviet lots. For example their unsold Deineka was estimated at twice that of MacDougall’s, and that simply was not realistic.” When Sotheby’s lowered their reserve prices, the demand for Deineka’s works exceeded the market estimate.  

Left:  Deineka’s “During the period of the first Five Year Plan”, lithograph of 1933 – estimate top of £9,000; sold by Sotheby’s for £13,750. Right: Deineka’s “China on the path of liberation from imperialism”, lithograph of 1930 – estimate top at £6,000; sold by Sotheby’s for £19,375. Source: http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2017/art-of-soviet-union-l17117/lot.206.html

Sotheby’s best-selling Soviet work turned out to be a piece of period irony which has almost ceased to be recognized. Erik Bulatov’s “Farewell Lenin”, painted in 1991, fetched  £369,000, 23% above the top of the auction house range.  The seller was a New York gallery.

MacDougall’s catalogue included the full range of Russian painting; several pre-Soviet works, including two religious works by Vasily Polenov from 1909, boosted the auction house total.

Two Soviet-era painters, Nikolai Fechin and Andrei Mylnikov, set record prices for works that don’t qualify as Soviet in anything but the time they were painted. “Duane”, a portrait of an American heiress Fechin painted in New Mexico in 1926 and last sold by Sotheby’s in 2008 to a European collector,  fetched £913,500. Mylnikov’s two canvasses, one of women bathing by a river and one of picnickers in a copse, were painted between in 1974 and 1982. Female nudity usually fetches a premium in Russian art sales, and this one sold for £294,300, Mylnikov’s best-ever price. His fully clothed picnickers went for £195,000. The sellers were from the US and UK.

Although Sotheby’s displayed more Soviet works than MacDougall’s, a market analyst reports that MacDougall’s did better because it had been “more selective. Many of Sotheby’s Soviet lots were mediocre.”

William MacDougall (right) reports that “as usual, many of the sellers were American, while the majority of buyers were not just Russian, but residents of Moscow to which the majority of works we sell end up; we’re returning the heritage.  I think the market is looking past the politics and seeing high-quality art done by Russians in the middle of the 20th century.” He notes  there is a generational shift between sellers and buyers,  and also a revival of Russian national taste. “Most of the American holders bought 30 to 40 years ago when Russian art was cheap, so by definition [the sellers] would be older.  What’s more important is that Russians are more willing to look seriously at Russian art on its merits, while many in the West have undervalued it, except for the Avant-garde.”

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