Sales of Russian Art at Sotheby's

An agate mouse went for 33,000 pounds at Sotheby's

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As Sotheby’s chairman of Russia, Mark Poltimore, concluded his first round of Russian art sales in London last week, he wished everyone a good lunch, and then, under his breath, urged them also to have a glass of wine. It had been an exasperating morning in which, despite his bonhomie, just over half of his best pictures had not found buyers; and there were another 200 lots of Russian art to go in the afternoon.

Unlike the Impressionist and contemporary art markets, which have returned to near normality after the economic downturn, the Russian art market has been cautious. Three years ago, Russian pictures and the price of Fabergé were soaring, and a series of sales in London reached almost £100 million. But in November 2008, they crashed to £50 million, and last year, with wealthy Russians increasingly putting their money into Impressionist and modern art, they fell to £40 million. This year, four London salerooms were hoping to halt the decline with at least £43 million of paintings and works of art on the block.

As Christie’s kicked off, it was clear that the paintings market was still nervous, as this section of the sale fell over £1 million short of its minimum estimate. The works of art section did much better, however, meeting its target. Items with an Imperial provenance are still sought after. A £937,250 record, for example, was paid for an Imperial snuff box by Fabergé.

One of the main buyers at the sale was the billionaire Alexander Ivanov, who has set up a Fabergé museum in Baden-Baden. Last week at Christie’s he bought a Fabergé clock for £385,250, a purple enamel Imperial Fabergé snuff-box that once belonged to Frank Sinatra, for £97,000, and another Imperial snuff box by Friedrich Koechli for £505,000. His favourite buy of the week was a small agate figure of a mouse for which he paid a treble-estimate £33,000 at Sotheby’s.

As at Christie’s, Russian buyers at Sotheby’s seemed more comfortable with objects than paintings, paying close to the auction estimates. In contrast, the picture haul was just £6.9 million, two million short of the lowest expectations. Some of the blame could be attributed to Sotheby’s Russian art sales in New York four weeks earlier, which were timed to catch Russian buyers at the Impressionist sales. The strongest section was for the ballet material which almost sold out. A set design for Diaghilev’s Le Rossignol by Alexander Benois that last sold for £4,600 in 1996 sold for £43,250. But otherwise, dealers said, the material in London seemed over- priced and some of the attributions were questionable.

Although the week’s smallest, Bonhams’ sale was the only one to exceed estimates, making £3.3 million. Again, works of art did best, and included an Imperial Russian table that fetched £916,000 - a record for a piece of Russian furniture.

The biggest sale was held by MacDougall’s, a specialised Russian art auctioneer founded in 2004. Its £16.2 million sale included a picture of a boy dressed up as a cowboy by Nikolai Fechin, which sold for £6.9 million, more than 10 times the estimate, and an early work by the 19th-century landscape artist Ivan Shishkin doubled estimates to sell for £1.9 million. Even so, more than half of MacDougall’s 600 lots, mostly paintings and watercolours, did not sell.

Clearly this is a more discerning market. As Iana Kobeleva, of London’s Aktis Gallery, said: “In general, the time of Russian buyers bidding for paintings without much consideration for their quality and price has gone.” Other dealers said the sales should be much smaller and more selective. On the evidence of last week, it was the works of art that kept the market lubricated, enabling the sales to scrape by with a respectable £44.6 million total.

Source: The Telegraph
7 December, 2010