Art market

Russian art at auction: Buyers wary of unpredictable prices

Mixed results as contemporary art nosedives while earlier works avoid the worst

Eight sales of Russian art at four auction houses in London produced mixed results in the second week of June. The nascent contemporary Russian art market suffered its worse results ever, while demand for classical 19th- and early 20th-century paintings and decorative works of art proved strong, though down from the market peak a year ago.

From 8 to 11 June, Sotheby’s, Christie’s and MacDougall’s sold £29.1m of Russian art (est £27m-£41m). The auction houses’ pre-sale estimates do not include buyer’s premium, while the results do include that premium.

The items offered included Russian and Ukrainian post-war and contemporary art, Imperial vases, Fabergé works, silver, porcelain, and Orthodox church icons. Bonhams also had a sale of Russian art on 8 June, much smaller than the other three houses, but it did not give a final total sales figure.

The top lot of the week was Boris Kustodiev’s The Village Fair, 1920, which sold at Sotheby’s to a phone bidder for £2.8m (est £1m-£1.5m). The week’s second most expensive lot also sold at Sotheby’s. A pair of mid-19th century Imperial vases went to a phone bidder for £2.6m (est £1.2m-£1.8m).

Among Sotheby’s notable failures were Kustodiev’s In the Provinces, 1920 (est £300,000-£500,000). There was almost no interest in the painting, which Sotheby’s said had been exhibited in New York City in 1924.

MacDougall’s sold the week’s second and third most expensive paintings. Ilya Repin’s Portrait of Madame Alisa Rivoir, 1914, sold for £1.4m (est £800,000-£1.2m). The second most expensive lot was Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin’s Maternity, 1922, which sold for £1.07m (est £1.1m-£1.8m). Both were records for these artists at auction.

Sotheby’s 9 June sale of Russian and Ukrainian contemporary art met a dismal end, selling only 41 of 109 lots, or about 39% of the total, grossing £900,000. At Sotheby’s last auction of contemporary Russian art in March 2008, the total was £4.3m. Market players said the sale’s failure was mostly due to poor quality, and to major collectors dropping out of the market.

“Collectors are still wary of what they see as fluctuating price points. A lot of them sat on the sidelines today,” said Mark Kelner, a Washington, DC-based collector of and dealer in Russian post-war art.

“Potential sellers aren’t willing to part with their best pieces for fear of a lesser valuation,” said Mr Kelner. “Getting these consignments is often harder than selling them. And I think the burden is on dealers and the auction houses to dig deeper in finding quality, museum-level works.”

The top contemporary lot was Komar and Melamid’s What Is to be Done? 1983, which sold for £97,000 (est £100,000- £150,000). Semyon Faibiso­vich’s Sausage Line, 1989, sold for £58,850 (est £40,000-£67,000). The auction’s top pre-sale lot failed to sell—Oleg Vasiliev’s Olga Mikhailovna and Natasha, 1979 (est £180,000-£220,000).

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 204 July 2009