Fine art and decorative art at Sotheby’s, Christie’s, MacDougalls’s and Bonhams brought in a combined total of £16.4m, a new low since the £17.2m in December last year, according to figures from the online platform Russian Art and Culture.
The London sales of Russian fine and decorative art have been in decline since 2011, when they hit a high of around £30m. The Crimean invasion of 2014, subsequent economic sanctions, the fall in oil prices and the collapse of the ruble sent the country’s market into free fall. Once-powerful collectors saw their spending powers slashed.
“The biggest problem, other than the currency, is the lack of consigners: no one wants to sell in a crisis so it’s a middle-market affair” says Simon Hewitt, the editor of Russian Art and Culture. The only lot that hit seven figures was Ivan Shishkin’s At the Edge of the Pine Forest (1897), which sold at Sotheby’s for £1.4m with fees, twice its upper estimate.
Three of the top ten selling paintings were sold at MacDougalls, among which was Alexander Yakolev’s painting of Palmyra (1933), now in ruins at the hands of Isis, which sold for £462,000 with fees, way past its estimate of £110,000-£150,000.
The good news is that “the collapse seems to have stabilised”, according to Hewitt, who points out that overall selling rates and consignment volume has plateaued, suggesting that the free fall might be over. “The slightly higher selling rate [+1% since December’s sales] is a result of lower reserves, a sign that consigners are beginning to accept the state of the market. The intangible thing is buyer confidence though—the idea that it’s a good time to buy.”
One man’s loss is another’s gain, however, and there are potential bargains to be made if you’re a buyer, given the fall in prices for many Russian artists.
The other good news, as Hewitt says, is that the price of oil has risen to $50.3 a barrel, its highest value since July 2015, and the ruble is 6% stronger against the pound than it was in December last year.
Sale totals (including fine art and decorative arts)
£8.3m with fees
68% sold by lot
£4.4m with fees
74% sold by lot
£3.35m with fees
43% sold by lot
£354,000 with fees
40% by lot