Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Russian boom is the genuine article

Art sales: Russian boom is the genuine article


Colin Gleadell reports on the surge of interest in Russian art sales

The Russian art market is standing up to a wave of reports concerning criminal activity in the Russian art world. Last year, Dr Vladimir Petrov of the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow claimed that he had uncovered 120 Russian art fakes on the market in five months.

Pastorale Russe by Konstantin Somov
Pastorale Russe (1922) by Konstantin Somov sold for £2.7 million, 10 times over its estimate

This year, Denis Lukashin, a Russian art consultant, has said that "as many as 70 per cent" of Russian paintings in Russian art collections formed over the past two years are fakes.

Undeterred, Russian art dealers and collectors descended on London for the latest series of Russian art sales last week, packing the salerooms and driving a £53 million spending spree - the highest amount for a series of Russian art sales to date.

To get an idea of the growth rate of this steamroller of a market, the global figure for specialised Russian art sales in London and New York in 2000 was £7.6 million. Last year it was £85 million. Including last week's sales, that figure has now reached £128 million for 2006.

However, there was discrimination at work. Nineteenth-century Russian paintings were much favoured by the new rich after the collapse of the Soviet Union. A key figure here is the prolific marine painter, Ivan Aivazovsky.

Two years ago, Aivazovsky was the first painter in a Russian art sale to break the £1 million barrier. But last week there were 14 Aivazovskys on offer. Nine of them were at Christie's, and only three of these were sold.

There have been doubts about how many Aivazovskys are by him or his studio assistants.

Similarly, the work of Ivan Shishkin, one of Russia's most highly prized 19th-century landscape painters, has been at the centre of a forgery case. Whether this played a part or not, two typical forest landscapes by Shishkin, vetted by experts and valued at between £400,000 and £700,000 each, failed to sell.

The star of the 19th-century sales turned out to be Alexei Harlamoff, a favourite of Queen Victoria's. His saccharine-sweet portrait of a little girl sewing, which had long hung at Fortnum and Mason in Piccadilly, sold at Bonhams for a record £620,000.

The main discernible shift at the sales was towards the 20th century: not the radical abstractions of Malevich, but something more decorative for the average oligarch. "The Russians like figurative painting," says Joanne Vickery of Sotheby's.

And out of the last flowering of Imperial culture they have discovered Russian post-Impressionism with its links to mysticism, symbolism, literature, theatre and design.

At Sotheby's, a painting of Chinese ladies at the theatre made in 1918 by Alexander Yakovlev was as stylised as anything produced in the Neue Sachlichkeit movement in Germany, and sold for a record £1 million.

A sun-drenched street scene in Turkey by the Armenian painter Martiros Saryan, which could hold its own with Matisse, sold for a record £388,000.

At Christie's, a slightly wooden, semi-erotic fairy-tale painting of two lovers in the moonlight by Konstantin Somov brought a cheer from the crowd when it sold for 10 times over its estimate for £2.7 million - a record for any painting in a Russian sale. Paintings by Boris Grigoriev and Aleksandra Exter, artists who had dabbled with the European avant garde, with Cubism and Futurism, soared to more than £900,000.

In the past, these artists would not have been considered for major sales of Impressionist and Modern art. But at the Russian sales, they shone like the stars.

Second-rate paintings by Russian-born artists Chaim Soutine, Serge Poliakoff and Nicholas de Stael, whose works are readily available in sales of modern and contemporary Western art, looked out of place – and overpriced. The Russians were having none of it.

The Russian sales are about rediscovering more home-spun talents Often, prices and estimates were inexplicably erratic. But, like the problems with fakes, this is all part of a young and booming market.

And, with Russian sales now taking place all over Scandinavia, in the Czech Republic and even in Ukraine, it is one that is destined to expand – so long as the Russian economy flourishes and its list of billionaires continues to lengthen.


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