Russian Art Market: A New Reality

By John Varoli (Bloomberg)

Reprinted Courtesy of The Art Newspaper

June 9 (Varoli Art News) -- Results on the second day of Russian art auctions in London show the market remains in flux and has not reached bottom, with postwar and contemporary art hit the hardest.
Christie’s June 9 auction of Russian art offered something for everyone --- classical and contemporary paintings, icons, Faberge, silver, Imperial porcelain, bronzes, military medals, fine glass, enamels, and Cossack swords. In just three hours 128 out of 198 lots sold, or 65 percent of the total, grossing 4 million pounds ($6.5 million). The total presale estimate was 3.3 million pounds to 4.9 million pounds. The top five lots, however, accounted for about half of that 4 million pound total. Today’s result is a pale shadow of the result in June 2007 when Christie’s sold 18.1 million pounds of Russian art.
Today’s top lot was Vasilii Shukhaev’s ``A Finnish village, Roofs,’’ (1920), which sold for 690,000 pounds on a top estimate of 500,000 pounds. This exquisite work was bought by a prominent Kiev collector sitting in the room. He spoke after the purchase, but wished to remain anonymous.
Ivan Aivazovsky’s ``The Survivor,’’ (1892), was the second most expensive lot, selling for 421,000 pounds on a top estimate of 350,000 pounds. Aivazovsky’s ``Ukrainian harvest’’ (1857), a rather poor work of fields in the Ukriane, barely sold at 337,000 pounds, not even reaching its low estimate of 350,000 pounds.
(Note: both Sotheby’s and Christie’s presale estimates don’t include buyer’s premium, while the results do include that premium).
Sotheby’s June 9 sale of Russian and Ukrainian contemporary art struggled against a lack of interest, selling only 41 of 109 lots, or about 39 percent of the total, grossing 900,000 pounds ($1.45 million). At Sotheby’s last auction of contemporary Russian art, in March 2008, the total was 4.3 million pounds.
Today’s top lot was Komar and Melamid’s 1983 oil on canvas, ``What is to be done?’’ It sold for 97,000 pounds, just below its low estimate of 100,000 pounds. Semyon Faibisovich, ``Sausage Line,’’ (1989), sold for 58,850 pounds on a top estimate of 67,000 pounds. Oleg Vasiliev’s ``Field in Abramtsevo,’’ (1972), sold for 59,000 pounds on a top estimate of 60,000 pounds.
The auction’s top presale lot failed to sell --- Vasiliev’s ``Olga Mikhailovna and Natasha,’’ (1979), which had a low estimate of 180,000 pounds.
“The sale today was the first in this category to be staged at Sotheby’s in the new reality,’’ said Jo Vickery, head of Sotheby’s Russian art department. ``The last test of this market was Sotheby’s London March 2008 sale – and the auction has provided us with valuable information about the adjusted art market. It is clear that this area of the Russian art market remains in transition.’’
Of the 900,000 pound total, the Ukrainian art section accounted for about 125,000 pounds. The top-selling Ukrainian artist was Oksana Mas from Odessa. Her ``Drive 9,’’ (2008), is a colorful and energetic panel. It sold for 33,650 pounds, more than twice its top estimate of 15,000 pounds. Mas has been eagerly sought by Russian and Ukrainian collectors for over a decade, and is represented in Russia by Aidan Gallery, but today’s result could position her as Ukraine’s most promising artist on the international art scene. Indeed, on June 11 Mas opens her first North American exhibition at the Zorya Fine Art Gallery in Greenwich, Connecticut.
Vassily Tsagolov’s 2002 oil on canvas, ``Bunny,’’ (from the Ukrainian X-files series), was the second most expensive Ukrainian lot, selling for 25,000 pounds, which was its top estimate.  The painting is indeed something right out of X-files, featuring mothers sitting on a park bench, one of whom is holding a bizarre child creature akin to an alien.
Probably one of the most interesting facts of the Russian contemporary art section was that leading Moscow collector Igor Markin had four lots up for sale. Only two of them sold, however. One of those was Victor Pivovarov’s 1992 ``A Bun for Tea,’’ which went for 37,000 pounds on a low estimate of 40,000 pounds.
From 2003 to 2008 Markin was one of the top buyers on the Russian contemporary art market, eventually opening his own museum in June 2007. Six months ago that museum severely curtailed its operations, now open only one day a week.
Like the rest of the world, Russia faces economic crisis and uncertainty. While oil prices and the ruble have posted gains in the past months, there’s a widespread feeling in Moscow that the economy will be hit hard by bankruptcies in autumn.
``We're all affected by the Crisis, but it's become obvious that even the super-wealthy can't and won't absorb everything,’’ said Mark Kelner, a Washington D.C.-based collector and dealer of Russian postwar art.  ``Collectors are still wary of what they see as fluctuating price points and a lot of them sat on the sidelines today. Yet, I'm encouraged that important Russian pieces by Faibisovich, Rabin, Masterkova, and Kosolapov found an audience clamoring for them -- even at bargain prices.’’
``However, even in a down market, collectors aren't willing to part with their best pieces for fear of a lesser valuation,’’ said 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 that inspire.  It's what collectors want and are willing to pay for.’’

Reprinted Courtesy of Varoli Art News