United Kingdom

Russian sales in London show increasing market confidence

Surprise as MacDougall's triumphs with 19th- and 20th-century paintings

LONDON. The Russian art market in London bounced back from a four-year low in early December as wealthy Russian buyers, who dominate the market, regained confidence amid better economic activity in their homeland.

Nine Russian art auctions, spread over four days from 30 November to 3 December at Bonhams, Christie’s, MacDougall’s and Sotheby’s, pulled in a combined £40.1m (est £40m-£51m). The results were just below last year’s £41m total, but were up 37% on the market’s low of £29m in June 2009.

“The worse is definitely behind us,” said Ivan Samarine, a London-based Russian art dealer. “The problem in the first half of this year was not that the market collapsed; rather it froze as sellers didn’t want to sell at lower prices, and buyers didn’t want to buy until prices stabilised.” Now, said London-based Russian art dealer James Butterwick, “consolidation, improvement and optimism are the best way to describe the situation on the market.”

Paintings from the 1920s and 1930s were the week’s top lots, but Fabergé items with an imperial provenance soared the most over top estimate. Other items offered included imperial porcelain, silver, Orthodox icons, state military medals and historical photographs.

The Russian economy shrank by around 10% in the first half of 2009, but economic activity has picked up since then and the government forecasts a small amount of growth for 2010.

“Oil prices have recovered, economies are recovering, people have money to spend again and need to put it somewhere,” said William MacDougall, co-director of MacDougall’s.

London accounts for about two-thirds of global Russian art sales at auction. Most items are sourced from private American and European collections, while most buyers are from Russia and Ukraine. “Ukrainian buyers often take home top lots, those with excellent provenance and quality, but are more cautious about the mid-market,” said Sergei Tabalov, owner of the Kiev auction house, Art Kapital, adding that he bought some imperial heirlooms, icons and paintings for clients.

Sotheby’s posted the week’s biggest total, selling £19.4m (est £14.8m-£21.2m) across four auctions, with 74% sold by lot. The house scored a so-called “white glove sale” on 30 November, which means it sold every lot from the imperial Romanov heirloom sale. The items were in mint condition, hidden for 90 years in a safe in the Swedish foreign ministry until rediscovered this year and each of the 108 lots, bar one, sold above high-estimate to a packed sales room, making a total of £7.1m—way above the £900,000 high estimate.

Andrei Ruzhnikov of Aurora Fine Art Fund, one of the world’s leading Fabergé collectors, was bidding in the room and said he bought “some items”, but that several lots went too high for him. Sotheby’s said the imperial heirlooms sale attracted bids from around the world, making the competition tighter than expected.

However, the boisterous heirloom sale was immediately followed by a mediocre Sotheby’s evening sale of paintings, which disappointed, selling only half of 37 lots for £4.1m (est £7.8m -£11.1m), casting a pall over the rest of the week. “After the Sotheby’s evening sale, we noticed that potential buyers became nervous, and some people interested in our sales suddenly withdrew their bids,” said Catherine MacDougall, co-director of rival auction house MacDougall’s. “Sotheby’s made the mistake of having a three-hour imperial heirlooms sale followed immediately by the paintings evening sale. By the time the paintings started, it was midnight in Moscow, and rich Russians aren’t the type of people who like to be kept waiting,” she said, adding: “Had Sotheby’s sale been the next day, then results would’ve been much better for them, and for the other auction houses.”

In a major upset, MacDougall’s sold the most in the week’s main category, 19th- and 20th-century paintings, for the first time ever, with sales of £8.6m, beating Sotheby’s £8.4m, and Christie’s £4.7m. Overall the house totalled £9.4m (est £12.5m-£17m) at separate auctions that included Orthodox icons. Christie’s two sales totalled £9.4m (est £6.5m-£9.3m), selling 70% by lot, while the one Bonhams auction of Russian paintings sold £1.9m (est £1.8m-£2.5m).

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