The results of the London sales of Russian fine and decorative art have given the market some cause for reassurance following years of falling figures. Sotheby’s, Christie’s, MacDougall’s and Bonhams brought in a combined total of £23.2m, an encouraging upswing compared with the £17.2m combined total this time last year, and the record low of £16.4m, fetched in June this year.
The sales, collectively known as Russian Art Week, hit a high of around £30m back in 2011, but the market has been steadily shrinking following the Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the resulting economic sanctions imposed by the US and the EU, a fall in oil prices and the subsequent collapse of the ruble. These factors combined to slash the spending power of formerly wealthy collectors, which is not good news in a market that relies heavily on Russian buyers.
Consignments were widely blamed for results in June — no one seemed to want to sell important works. This time around, however, Sotheby’s, which hosted the most successful auction of the week, proved capable of securing big lots, even in these less bullish times. The house sold two important Russian avant garde works, Alexander Rodchenko’s Construction No.95 (1919) and Ilya Chashnik’s The Seventh Dimension (early 1920s), for record prices. Rodchenko’s work, estimated between £2.5m and £3.5m, sold for £3.6m with fees, eclipsing its previous record of £420,000 for a 1917 watercolour. But it was the work by Chashnik that stole the show by outstripping its estimate of £100,000 to £150,000 and selling for £2.4m with fees, unsurprising given that it is one of the few surviving works by the artist, whose archives at Vitebsk were destroyed during the Second World War. Another highlight from the sale was the 63-lot Bar-Gera collection of Russian Non-Conformist art. The collection sold just above estimate for £1.4m.
The British dealer James Butterwick, who specialises in Russian art and was an underbidder for Rodchenko and Chashnik was buoyed by results overall. “Many Russians were enthused because they saw these sales as a return to the good times. There were fewer unsold lots than in previous years and the avant garde works were terrific. The Non-Conformist market is very undervalued—it was the most hard-hit after the financial crisis of 2008, but now it’s taken off again, though the single-owner factor certainly helped. Everyone has got used to ideas of sanctions etc and tension between East and West, now they’re just getting on with it. Some collectors are finding their confidence again.”
Russian works of art
sold by lot 66%
sold by lot 80%
sold by lot 79%
Russian Art, works of art and icons
sold by lot 52%
The Russian sale
sold by lot 50%