An Insider’s Perspective
on the Russian Art Market

The legendary Faberge violet. Photo: Sotheby's

||| Back to the Royal Russia News Archive |||
||| Royal Russia Bulletin - Our Official Blog. Updated Daily With News Clips, Videos & Photographs |||
||| The Romanovs ||| The Reign of Nicholas II ||| Royal Russia Videos ||| Romanov & Imperial Russia Links |||
||| Our Bookshop: Books on the Romanovs & Imperial Russia ||| Gilbert's Books - Publisher of Books on the Romanovs |||
||| What's New @ Royal Russia - Updated Monthly |||
||| Return to Royal Russia - Directory ||| Return to Royal Russia - Main Page |||
The interest in Russian art shown in recent years by collectors both in Russia and abroad shows no sign of abating. An auction held by Sotheby’s auction house in December saw Russian works of art, including Faberge items and icons, go under the hammer for a total of three million pounds ($4.8 million), and a similar auction held in London in June 2010 raised more than five million pounds.

Russian collectors in particular have started to actively participate in international auctions and buy works by masters of their native country. This is one of the current market tendencies being observed by Olga Vaigatcheva, head of Russian works of art and the Faberge department at Sotheby’s.

“The art market is subject to the same influences as other markets,” says Vaigatcheva. “During the crisis there was a small decline, but nowadays the market of art development is gathering pace and the results of the last sales are very good. There will be always demand for and interest in Russian art.”

An authoritative specialist on art, Vaigatcheva is a key figure of the team behind major sales of Russian art by Sotheby’s, including the Rostropovich-Vishnevskaya collection and sales devoted respectively to imperial gifts and Romanov heirlooms.

Vaigatcheva started her professional journey by studying Chinese and economics at the University of London, before going on to continue her education at Sotheby’s Institute of Art. She was attracted by the opportunity not only of obtaining an academic knowledge of East Asian art, but of learning about the art market and the commercial side of the art business. Vaigatcheva had not yet taken her viva when she was invited to join Sotheby’s auction house in 2005.

“I was born and grew up in St. Petersburg, so ever since childhood I have been surrounded by beautiful things and sights, and a love of art has always been in my blood,” says Vaigatcheva.

Vaigatcheva’s work at Sotheby’s originally focused on Chinese paintings, but with time she moved to the Russian art department, becoming one of Sotheby’s first employees to speak Russian as a native language.

“The Chinese painting market is mostly based in China, while Europe is more interested in applied art,” explained Vaigatcheva. “Working in the Russian department is closer to my heart and more interesting to me.”

It is difficult to separate particular trends in art that are popular among collectors: For every item, there is a collector.

“There can be fashions for some style periods,” says Vaigatcheva. “For example, the best imperial vases were produced during the reign of Nicholas I. The tsar patronized the imperial porcelain factory and introduced a lot of innovations. It was at that time that Russian porcelain became comparable with European pieces.”

There is also a demand for the “propaganda porcelain” that emerged in the 1920s. With its Soviet symbols and slogans, the tea services reflected the spirit of the post-revolutionary years.

“No other country had this culture of avant-garde,” says Vaigatcheva. “It was a fresh stream in art; it thrilled minds, it is unique and recognizable, and greatly influenced the development of the art world. That’s why it piques collectors’ interest nowadays,” she explained.

“It’s always interesting to follow the path of a particular lot. Things come from all over the world and travel to all the corners of the Earth. Last year there was a growth in customers from the East,” she said.

Traditionally, most collections begin with items that are primarily interesting to their owners, according to Vaigatcheva. Then interest grows, a taste develops for the item, collectors gain more knowledge and start to supplement their collection. But the most popular and valuable items among collectors remain those with an interesting provenance, especially those related to the imperial family. Another criterion for the value of an item is novelty.

“Good things with an interesting provenance always attract interest and are more valuable,” says Vaigatcheva. “The best example is the sale of Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna’s jewelry collection, which was one of the most interesting projects I have seen during my career.”

Maria Pavlovna was one of the few members of the imperial Russian family who was able to smuggle jewelry out of revolutionary Russia. In 1918, Professor Richard Bergholz delivered two pillowcases stuffed with cufflinks, cigarette and cigar cases to the Swedish Legation in Petrograd, as Petersburg was then known. Maria Pavlovna escaped abroad and died two years later, without having been able to tell her family about the hidden jewelry. Swedish diplomats took the treasure out of revolutionary Russia to Stockholm, where the items remained in two striped pillowcases for more than 90 years. They had been forgotten entirely when, in 2009, the jewelry was found in the diplomatic archives of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs during an inventory review.

“The jewelry was given to the descendants of Maria Pavlovna. But it was difficult to divide it up between members of the family, so they decided to put the items up for public auction,” said Vaigatcheva.

“The auction excited not only collectors, but also museum specialists, which is really a rare thing, that happens only when items appear so suddenly and with such a romantic story. We were lucky to discover unknown items that no one had ever seen or known about.”

The auction of the historic jewelry collection took place at Sotheby’s in London in 2009, and raised a total sum that was seven times bigger than that expected, exceeding seven million pounds. Most of the items sold were made by the fabled Faberge jewelry house.

“Faberge items are always popular among collectors,” says Vaigatcheva. “It is a trademark that has enjoyed an excellent reputation since the 1860s, and its items are always in demand and very expensive. Carl Faberge combined different colors and precious stones in a unique, harmonious way. A great many items of jewelry were produced by Faberge, and no one knows the exact number. Often, some forgotten pieces turn up at auctions.”

“Although everyone talks about the eggs, for me, one of the most remarkable Faberge products is the violet.”

The violet was a gift from Queen Alexandra, sister of the empress Maria Fyodorovna, to her friend Lady Iveagh and was passed down from generation to generation of one family for years. The tricolor violet has five enameled petals in shades of violet and yellow, and a stem with leaves carved from nephrite. The flower’s stigma features a rose-cut diamond.

“Faberge flowers are the products that are in most demand on the jewelry market,” said Vaigatcheva. “The biggest collection is owned by the Queen of England. It was a big honor to investigate such a subject.”

“You can always recognize a true Faberge product,” she says. “If it’s not real, everything might be done professionally, but there will always be something that bothers you, you don’t quite feel the composition, and then it turns out to be a fake,” she said.

Working with antique masterpieces is extremely exciting and emotional, confessed Vaigatcheva.

“There are always mixed emotions. When you open a box containing an item, you feel impatient and excited. You twirl it in your hands. And every time you take it in your hands, you find something new. You can study it for hours and suddenly the light falls in a different way and you notice something else.”

Every professional dealing with auction lots will always have favorite items that they worry about and hope will end up in good hands.

“Art is always emotional,” concludes Vaigatcheva. “And this part of my work makes it more interesting and exciting.”

Sources: The St. Petersburg Times
30 March, 2011