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Russian billionaires are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on art. None of them has spoken to the press about what drives their collecting—until now

Russian collector Pyotr Aven shows his hand

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Moscow

Prices on the Russian art market have been rising fast, fuelled by the immense wealth of Russia’s most successful businessmen. However, according to banker Pyotr Aven, few of his peers are true collectors because, at best, they limit themselves to the occasional purchase to decorate city apartments or country dachas and rarely study the art they buy or apply rigour to their collections.

Mr Aven, president of Alfa Bank, one of Russia’s top 10 financial institutions, is the country’s 23rd richest man according to Forbes, with a fortune estimated at $1.7 billion. The Alfa Bank is part of one of Russia’s biggest private financial and industrial con-sortia, the Alfa Group, which was founded by Mr Aven and group CEO Mikhail Fridman in 1991. The consortium has interests in oil and gas, asset management, insurance, and telecommunications.

Mr Aven is one of the few Russian businessmen openly willing to discuss his holdings. Speaking in his downtown Moscow office, Mr Aven recounts that, as a young man, he befriended underground artists in Moscow and enjoyed the robust intellectual atmosphere that prospered despite Soviet restrictions.

“My goal is to build a collection; it’s a deep instinct to want to put things in order,’’ says Mr Aven, who adds that he does not rely on experts or advisors when buying art. “I’m very emotionally involved in my collecting; for me it’s a very personal thing.’’

He first started buying art in 1993. “As soon as I began making enough money,’’ he says. Prices in the 1990s were much lower, since the market was in its infancy, and supply was high because members of Russia’s intelligentsia had to sell whatever they could to make ends meet.

Most of Mr Aven’s collection was purchased in Russia directly from the descendants of the artists. While he would not say how much he paid in total for his collection, which now includes about 250 works, he believes it has increased in value tenfold.

Initially he bought early 20th-century works by artists from the so-called World of Art movement, later becoming interested in Jack of Diamonds (Bubnovy Valet), the art movement founded in Moscow in 1909 that influenced the Avant-garde.

“Bubnovy Valet was the preferred culture of the Moscow intelligentsia of the 1970s, which is my generation,’’ says Mr Aven. “Our favourite writers, poets, artists are from this period.’’

Examples of works in his collection by artists of the Bubnovy Valet school include the painting Victorious battle (1914) by Aristarkh Lentulov, purchased from the artist’s great grandson last year for “ a lot” of money, along with 13 pieces by Pyotr Konchalovsky (1876-1956).

Content that he has amassed a first-rate collection of Russian Modernist works, Mr Aven is moving on to a new passion. He has collected works in porcelain since 2002, especially Soviet propaganda porcelain. His holdings now include about 180 examples with plates and figures by Kazimir Malevich, Sergei Chekhonin, Natalia Danko, Alexandra Shchekotikhina-Pototskaya and Rudolf Wilde.

In May, he purchased a 1923 porcelain plate by Malevich for £131,000 from Sotheby’s London, with an estimate of £20,000/30,000. At the same time, he bought a 25 centimetre-high porcelain figure of a ballet dancer, possibly Nijinsky, by Elena Danko for £344,000 at Sotheby’s Olympia. Competitive bidding pushed the piece to a record for Russian porcelain.

Mr Aven says he buys works of art almost every week, and he recently purchased another Danko work, a 1938 porcelain group of Soviet explorers at the North Pole, although he refused to be drawn further.

Most of the collection is kept at his Moscow country house which is only open to close friends and business associates. There is a “waiting list’’ for those wanting to see it—those that have include some influential people. Among recent guests were the former 2004 Democratic vice-presidential candidate, John Edwards, the 1996 Republican Vice-presidential candidate, Jack Kemp, and Mr Aven’s “good friend’’ Ronald Lauder, chairman of cosmetics company Estée Lauder and MoMA chairman, who he says, “is more of a passionate art collector than I am’’.

The Ukrainian-born oil billionaire and collector Viktor Vekselberg has also visited the Moscow residence. But unlike Mr Vekselberg, who recently set up a new art investment fund for Russian art, Mr Aven says he is not out to make a profit. He hopes to pass his collection to his children and will not sell his holdings. “If my children choose not to continue to collect, then I’ll create a private museum,” he says.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Russian collector Pyotr Aven shows his hand'

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