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“There is so much money in the market now that... price seems to be irrelevant”

Oil-rich private collectors are dominating the salerooms and pushing aside dealers and investment funds

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New York

Sotheby’s Russian art sales in New York in April made $54m—the highest total ever achieved for auctions in this field. This exceeded the auction house’s previous record of $38.4m which was set in London in December.

The first two sales on 26 April made $46.7m. On April 28, Sotheby’s made another $7.6m by offering minor works of Russian art.

Four days before, Christie’s first-ever combined sale of Russian paintings and works of art, also in New York, made $15m, well above its upper estimate of $12m. “There is so much money in the market now that when someone really wants something, price seems to be irrelevant,” said Moscow dealer Natalia Kournikova.

Aurora Fine Art Investments has become one of the biggest buyers in this field in the past year. The Russian art-investment fund’s major owner is oil-and-mining billionaire Viktor Vekselberg. The fund, which also exhibits and sells at art fairs, was started with $100m in April 2005.

Speaking to The Art Newspaper after the Christie’s sale, Andrei Ruzhnikov, director of Aurora, said: “The prices here today were crazy and made me uncomfortable. Our strategy now is shifting towards purchases directly from collectors”.

Alexis de Tiesenhausen, the international head of Christie’s Russian department, believes the market has slipped out of the hands of dealers, and is becoming difficult even for funds as rich as Aurora. “More and more private Russian collectors are coming directly to the auction houses,’’ he says. With oil prices at a historic high, newly wealthy Russians are increasingly attending and buying at auctions.

Sotheby’s

At Sotheby’s sale on 26 April some 82% of the 429 lots found buyers. Early 20th-century paintings did especially well, with high prices also for 19th-century enamels and imperial porcelain plates.

Nearly 70% of the art was consigned by US collections, but most of the buyers were Russians. While Russian-themed works have been the most popular at past sales, this time the top lots had Asian subjects dating from the 1920s. Two paintings by Nikolai Roerich were in the top ten, including the top lot, Lao-Tze, a tempera-on-canvas work which depicts the founder of Chinese Taoism riding on a bull. It went to a telephone bidder for $2.2m, more than seven times its top estimate, setting an auction record for the artist.

Kabuki Dancer, (undated), by Alexander Yakovlev, was the second most expensive painting of the day, selling for $1.81m, nine times its top estimate. “Yakovlev is finally taking his place among the most prominent Russian painters,’’ said Ms Kournikova, who bought five early 20th-century works.

Other top prices at Sotheby’s sale included Korovin’s Studio, 1914, by Konstantin Korovin, which sold for $1.7m, more than twice its upper estimate. Nevsky Prospect, St Petersburg, a mid 19th-century work by Petr Vereschagin, sold for $1.47m, more than eight times its upper estimate; and Nikolai Bogdanov-Belsky’s 1915 oil-on-canvas, Reading in the Garden, sold for $1.36m, almost four times its upper estimate.

Lumpenproletariat, 1932, attributed to Pavel Filonov and his student, Alisa Poret (1902-84), sold for $1.47m, just above its upper estimate of $1.2m, though this price may have been depressed by disputes over attribution (see below).

A Russian gilded-silver and champlevé-enamel tea and coffee set sold for $1.8m, well above its upper estimate of $800,000. Sixteen imperial military porcelain plates sold for $2.57m, more than double their combined upper estimate of $1.1m. The plates, which were sold individually to the same buyer, bidding on the telephone, were made at the Imperial Porcelain Factory in St Petersburg during the reign of Nicholas I (1825-1855).

The sale, however, had its disappointments. Petr Konchalovsky’s fauvist The Olive Grove, 1910, which had the auction’s highest upper estimate of $2.5m, failed to sell. “This Konchalovsky is excellent,’’ said Alexander Lachmann, a dealer in Cologne. “I don’t understand the logic that is driving the market,” he added.

Les Amoureux, 1917-18, by Konstantin Somov, with a lower estimate of $800,000, also failed to find a buyer; as did Cubist Self-Portrait (undated, about 1910) by Vladimir Baranov-Rossine, also with a lower estimate of $800,000.

Christie’s

At Christie’s Russian Paintings and Works of Art sale on 24 April, the highlight was the collection of the late Charles Crane, collector, diplomat and a member of US President Woodrow Wilson’s commission to the Soviet Union after the Russian Revolution, whose 42 lots earned $5.8m. The Abolition of Serfdom in Russia, 1920, by Czech artist Alphonse Mucha was taken by a bidder for $1.47m. While that was a record for the artist at auction, it failed to reach its lower estimate of $1.5m.

A little-known Georgian painter, Grigorii Gabashvili, surprised the audience with his The Bazaar in Samarkand, 1895, an oil on canvas that sold for $1.1m, over its top estimate of $600,000 and a record for the artist. Zinaida Serebriakova’s 1931 oil on canvas, Sleeping Nude, which went to a bidder in the room for $1.4m (upper estimate $400,000), was also a record for the artist.

The sales confirmed that currently, Sotheby’s is the leader in the Russian market. Its 2005 sales totalled $102m, more than double its 2004 figure, and were nine times as much as the 2001 figure of $9m. Christie’s had global Russian sales in 2005 of $40.7m, up 77% from the previous year.

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