Russian 19th-century art saves the day

But postwar, modern and contemporary consignments flop

NEW YORK. Sotheby’s and Christie’s Russian art auctions in New York last month achieved respectable totals largely because of 19th-century paintings which did well. However, sales of early 20th-century modern masters were disappointing and postwar art also took heavy losses. The auctions were overshadowed by worries that works of dubious authenticity are flooding the Russian market (p30).

“The market is shaped in large part by what is offered,’’ said Ivan Samarine, a London-based dealer who also heads Russian sales at Stockholm’s Auction House. “The New York sales show that there is not much more top quality Russian art out there.’’ While the vast majority of works were consigned by Americans, buyers were Russian and Ukrainian, and included several Russian émigrés in America and Europe.

At Sotheby’s on 15-16 April, 72% of 539 lots were sold for a total of $46.5m (est $41m-$57m). Russian 19th- and 20th-century paintings accounted for just over $36m, with six selling for more than $1m. The

most expensive lot, Arkhip Kuindzhi’s Birch Grove, 1881, went for $3.1m (est $2m-$3m), an auction record for the artist. Before the sale the work’s authenticity had been questioned by collectors and dealers, none of whom wanted to go on the record. Sotheby’s dismissed this: “We feel these rumours are spread by some dealers in order to scare bidders away and keep prices low,’’ said one top auction house official.

Ivan Aivazovsky’s 1892 Distributing Supplies and Relief Ship, sold as a pair for $2.4m, (est $2m-$3m). They are the artist’s tribute to the US for sending grain to starving Russian peasants in the winter famine of 1891-92.

Vasiliy Polenov’s landscape The River Oyat, 1883, sold

for $1.4m (est $600,000-$800,000). However, some top lots failed to sell, such as Aivazovsky’s Crimean View, undated, (est $1.5m-$2m) and Ivan Shishkin’s In the Woods, 1882 (est $1.8m-$2.2m).

Most of the 28 Fabergé lots soared above top estimate, led by an icon of Jesus Christ in a silver frame studded with rubies, sapphires, pearls and emeralds which went for $780,000, (est $100,000-$150,000).

“Fabergé continues to be a magic name in the Russian market and there remains a broad base of bidders,’’ said Karen Kettering, Sotheby’s head of Russian works of art.

Porcelain had a setback, with major lots unsold, such as a four-foot high imperial centrepiece (est $2m-$3m) from the reign of Nicholas I (1825-55).

With a few exceptions, postwar work sold poorly, with

only 52% of 130 lots sold.

Ilya Kabakov’s album of 32 drawings, The Flying Komarov, 1978, led the section, selling

for $445,000 (est $200,000-$250,000). An auction record was set for Oscar Rabin with his 1959 painting, Socialist City, selling for $337,000 (est $120,000–$160,000). The postwar session’s top pre-sale lot, Oleg Tselkov’s undated Five Faces with Hand, was bought in (est $500,000-$700,000).

Many postwar artists were new to the market. “I commend Sotheby’s for taking risks and bringing lesser-known artists into the fray,’’ said Mark Kelner, a Washington, DC-based Russian postwar art dealer and collector. “But it seems buyers are making a statement—we cannot absorb everything.”

Christie’s sale on 18 April sold 86% of 253 lots for $17.6m (est $9m–$13m), led by Shishkin’s The Forest Clearing, 1896, which went for $3.2m (est $1m–$1.4m).

Works of art with imperial provenances had spectacular results at Christie’s. An imperial silver-gilt enamel punch set by Ovchinnikov sold for $960,000 (est $200,000-$300,000); and an imperial silver-gilt enamel vodka set, also by Ovchinnikov, was bought for $736,000 (est $70,000-$90,000).

Three paintings by Nicholas Roerich made the list of top ten works sold by price, in part reflecting the greater prevalence of the artist’s works in American collections. Roerich settled in the US in 1920. The top work by the artist, Heat of the Earth, 1918, was the sale’s fourth most expensive lot, bought for $769,000 (est $120,000- $180,000).

But Loge de Théâtre à Pékin, 1918 (est $1.8m-$2.5m), by the leading modern artist Alexander Yakovlev, which was expected to be Christie’s top lot, was bought in.

John Varoli

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