Russian Auction Week in London 6-8 June 2016
RISING FROM THE RUINS?
RUSSIAN AUCTIONS SPROUT TIMID SHOOTS OF RECOVERY
BY SIMON HEWITT
THE MOOD IN LONDON ahead of this June’s Russian Auction Week was downbeat. Erarta had just become the latest London gallery specializing in Russian art to close. Maxim Boxer had stopped staging his themed contemporary auctions. Christie’s slashed the invite list to their eve-of-week Party by half. Sotheby’s traditional Evening Sale was absent for the second season running, and already seems a distant memory. There were no Avant-Garde works on offer, and not a single lot came with a seven-figure estimate. Three of the Week’s auctions came with the dreariest catalogue covers you ever did see.
Even so, most of the familiar faces from among the trade were in town – whether from Moscow, St Petersburg or New York – and the atmosphere in the salerooms was less doom-and-gloom than last November, perhaps because vendor expectations are at last beginning to conform to market reality.
This was reflected in published estimates that were the most modest in recent memory. Take the £500,000-700,000 estimate that Sotheby’s assigned a late, market-fresh Shishkin, At the Edge of the Pine Forest (1897). As recently six months ago this would, in all probability, have been unleashed on the market with a £1m estimate. Bidders took the bait, hooking the Shishkin for £1,385,000.
Makovsky’s 1914 Ivan Susanin, a colossal 10 x 15ft, was offered with a £500,000-700,000 estimate – three times less than its estimate 18 months earlier, when it was paraded as Sotheby’s Russian Week highlight but remained unsold. This time round it did sell, just, for £413,000: six times less than what the consignor had been hoping for in November 2014.
Sotheby’s also sold a Pirosmani Roe Deer for a triple-estimate £629,000 (the same work brought just £361,250 at Sotheby’s in November 2011).
Fine Art (Pictures & Sculpture) accounted for 70% of all sales during the Week, up 2% from December. Just under 600 lots were offered; 49% sold for a total of £11.5m. Sotheby’s garnered a 54% share of the market with sales of £6.2m, followed by MacDougall’s with £3.2m (28%) and Christie’s with £1.9m (17%).
Ahead of his form’s sale on June 8, William MacDougall, fuelled by news that oil had risen to over $50.3 a barrel (its highest price since July 2015), felt a ‘buzz in the room and a feeling that the market was returning to health after a difficult period.’
The biggest buzz Battling Bill generated on June 8 was for Alexander Yakovlev’s 1933 view of Palmyra, which sold in the room after a protracted bidding war for a treble-estimate £461,800. Palmyra’s devastation by Isis, the concert conducted amidst its ruins by Valery Gergiev, and its archway re-constructed on Trafalgar Square all combined to make this sweeping, sandy panorama (pictured top) one of the hottest tickets in London this Summer.
Two 1929 sun-dappled Sergei Vinogradov views of the Pskovo-Pechersky Monastery, 30 miles west of Pskov, sold on the phone to the same buyer: Inner Entrance (which made a picturesque cover to the auction catalogue) for £86,850, and the slightly larger Belfry for £132,000. The same buyer also secured a dreamy, undated Vladimir Lebedev floral still life for £89,800; Nissky’s 1960s Boats by the Shore for £4550; and Pimenov’s 1972 Dressing-Room at the Bolshoi for £273,900 – a tidy increase on the $170,500 it fetched at Sotheby’s New York in April 2011.
Ayvazovsky’s The Survivor (1892) was MacDougall’s top price, selling on the phone for £499,000 – a tidy increase on the £421,250 it made at Christie’s London in 2009. The swirling mists and foaming sea were classic Zovsky, but the rock left-centre, with its half-naked figure scrambling to melodramatic safety, looked as if it had been slapped on with a knife.
A moonlit Ayvazovsky Ukrainian Landscape (estimate £275,000-300,000) again went unsold – as it had at MacDougall’s last June against an estimate of £300,000-500,000. This was far from being a typical Ayvazovsky and very far from being moonlit Ukraine – 1,000 miles away, to be exact. The landscape was clearly Dutch.
A couple of other recent failures tried their luck again, without success: Kustodiev’s Shrovetide, despite its £280,000-350,000 estimate of last December being slashed to £120,000-150,000; and Polenov’s Barge on the River Oka, offered in June 2015 with a £200,000-300,000 estimate and re-offered here with an estimate… that was exactly the same. The mind boggles.
Semiradsky Nero’s Torches (c.1876) failed against an estimate of £400,000-500,000, even though his undated Conversation by the Spring (considerably smaller at 54 x 100cm) had culled a mid-estimate £245,000 at Sotheby’s the day before.
There was never the remotest chance of Gudiashvili’s 1940s Legend of the Founding of Tbilisi getting anywhere near its £200,000-250,000 estimate. This was one of several versions of the painting and, if the faces on it are anything to go by, the worst. The same fate befell Le Songe, a nightmarish daub (est. £100,000-150,000) ascribed to Chagall. I have seen better paintings in a kindergarten.
MacDougall’s also struggled to build on their photographic debut of May 21. Of the 63 photographs in their Russian Week catalogue, 37 were withdrawn at the last minute – leaving a Rodchenko Goblet, from his Glass & Light series of 1928 (possibly printed a few years later), as the top individual price on £2,600.
Christie’s bundled away a couple of mid-rank Ayvazovskys, but had greatest cause to celebrate over the £140,500 paid for a small, 1898 Benois watercolour of Louis XIV on a stormy afternoon at Versailles – justifying its presence on the front of their catalogue.
Half the 180 works of contemporary art offered during the Week found takers for a total of £1.94m, with the market dominated by Sotheby’s (£987,000) and MacDougall’s (£760,000).
A huge Guryanov 1990 Self-Portrait led Sotheby’s Russian contemporary works on £143,000. A catalogue entry by frontline St Petersburg curator Olesya Turkina explained that the picture – shown at the landmark exhibition devoted to Timur Novikov’s New Academy in 1991 – was one of a series of brightly coloured portraits based on black-and-white photographs Guryanov made of himself and his fellow-members of the legendary Perestroika rock-band Kino.
Another Guryanov was Gay Games: a large, square canvas signed in capitals along the bottom GEORGY GURYANOV (in Cyrillic) then “GAY GAMES” AMSTERDAM 1998. It coarsely portrayed a dozen oarsmen (one of them ironically resembling a young Vladimir Putin) in a wooden style bereft of Guryanov’s hallmark plays of light, shade and muscular tension. Sotheby’s omitted to mention the reason for this cursory brushwork: the painting was actually a mere poster design, for the fifth edition of the Gay Games (held in Amsterdam in August 1998). It fetched £37,500.
Other prices of note at Sotheby’s were £125,000 for Komar & Melamid’s circular Sots Art Double Self-Portrait from 1972, and £56,250 for a pithy Timur Novikov acrylic Skier from 1991.
It wasn’t all downhill, mind you. The Nobleman, a C-print (1/5) from Natalia Mali’s dramatic 2014 series Hole In My Heart inspired by her Kazhar ancestors, was unsold against a £2,000-3,000 estimate. ‘Sotheby’s didn’t lift a finger to sell my work!’ fumed Mali afterwards. ‘Their main goal was to sell the top lots – the rest were none of their business!’ She even ‘had to beg’ Sotheby’s to receive a second copy of the auction catalogue – yet still received a bill of £265 from the firm.
Viktor Popkov led the way at MacDougall’s with Three Artists (1962) at £190,000 – a price partly explained by its presence in the excellent Popkov show at Somerset House in 2014.
Another high price, £111,000, rewarded Victor Pivovarov’s 40-drawing album Eros that sold on the phone, with prominent Moscow collector Igor Markin underbidding in the room. But Markin won out on two Morandi-esque Weisbergs: Geometric Composition (1973) at £24,300 and Ten Geometric Shapes (1981) at £48,600.
Markin is not only adding to his collection, but currently selling part of it off by on-line auction on his art4.ru website. He was once an avid collector of works by Dubosarsky & Vinogradov, those tussovka darlings of the ‘New Russian’ boom-years. How their work has dated! Three trashily erotic D&Vs from 2000/1, with estimates ranging £5,000-20,000, attracted not a single bid.
Bidders of the world united to leave Komar & Melamid’s Karl Marx & Cornucopia unsold against an estimate of £100,000-150,000. The work had already failed at MacDougall’s in November 2014 (estimate £150,000-200,000) and at Phillips in February 2014 (estimate £250,000-350,000). Will there be a fourth time lucky?
An Italian private collection of 12 Non-Conformist works – 11 of them by Sveshnikov – was expected to totalize £170,000-250,000, but just of two of them sold for a combined £20,300. Two Tselkov set-designs from the 1960s, both with estimates of £6,000-8,000, also hit the buffers. The estimates may have been steep when it came to artistic merit, but were peanuts in terms of the works’ historic importance as evidence of the little-charted early career of one of Russia’s greatest artists.
Tselkov’s green-hued Two Four-Headed Women (1986), though, sold for a mid-estimate £60,200, while his blue-toned Cat & Dragonfly (1988) posted Christie’s top contemporary price of £62,500.
A 1990 Map Of Europe by the versatile Maxim Kantor took a mid-estimate £25,000. A cryptic inscription on the back by Mstislav Rostropovich, reading Hold on Maksiara/ Slava, acquired fresh relevance in the light of Kantor’s recent decision to quit Russia after receiving death threats for his outspoken criticism of the country’s current ownership. Kantor now lives in Oxford, where he is Fellow of Pembroke College, and has recently published (in French) a towering novel, Red Light, evoking the reincarnation of Fascism in modern Europe.
Fans of Russian contemporary art could also enjoy two exhibitions in London during Russian Auction Week. The powerful graphic work of Kazakh-Russian artist Alexander Yerashov (also known as ‘Amanita’), with its mix of Surrealism and satire, was on show at Shapero Rare Books.
And over 40 works in a variety of media, by 23 different artists, remain on display at Pushkin House until August 3 as part of a selling exhibition thoughtfully curated by Olga Jürgenson and Liza Savina. Highlights include works by Natalia Mali, Haim Sokol and the fast-emerging Tanya Akhmetgalieva, whose Effect of Invasion was priced at £8400.
Just 49 icons were offered during the week, of which 20 sold, totalling £435,000. Over half that came from the Fabergé silver, enamel and seed-pearl Pelagonitissa icon (c.1910) that yielded £245,000 at Sotheby’s. This distinctive image, with the Christ Child touching the Virgin’s cheek, is named after the city of Bitola in Macedonia, formerly known as Pelagonia – best known for hosting the congress that defined the Albanian alphabet in 1908 (when the city was known as Monastir).
WORKS OF ART
Excluding icons, around 450 works of art were offered; just over 60% sold for a total of £4.2m. Christie’s outsold Sotheby’s by £2.49m to £1.43m, with a top price of £134,500 for a bulbous humidor with a rare Fabergé combination of ceramic body and silver mounts.
Christie’s also sold a St Petersburg Imperial Porcelain plate, with a Drum Major and Standard-Bearer of the Preobrazhensky Regiment painted by Feodor Daladugin, for a hefty £128,500. This was one of six Imperial Porcelain military plates – painted in 1832 by five different artists after lithographs published in 1830 – that were originally owned by Grand Duke August von Oldenburg (1783-1853). All six sold to total £433,000.
Sotheby’s top price was £161,000 for a cloisonné enamel three-handled cup, 11in tall, made by Feodor Rückert for Ovchinnikov, and adorned with a roundel depicting the bridge and groom from Makovsky’s 1883 Boyar Wedding Feast. This once-celebrated painting was purchased in 1885 by the American jeweller Charles William Schumann for $15,000 (about $375,000 in today’s money) – then sold at Schumann’s estate sale in 1936 for just $2,500 ($43,000 today). It now hangs in the Hillwood Museum (D.C.).
Another Ovchinnikov item – a kovsch in the form of a Peacock, presented in 1915 to the ill-fated Cossack commander Filipp Kuzmich Mironov (1872-1921) – sold for £93,750, as did a Fabergé enamel box (c.1912) attributed to Rückert, and painted with Klavdy Lebedev’s Voyevoda (now in the Museum of Dnipropetrovsk). It was hardly a vintage week for Fabergé, but a 1907 silver ewer in the form of a perky rabbit sold well above expectations for £81,250.
An 1861 bronze figure of a Scythian Warrior by Ivan Kovshenkov, 27in tall, caused a minor sensation by reaching £127,400 against a £7,000 estimate, while a bronze and enamel Owl box by Princess Maria Tenisheva (1858-1928), famed for her Abramstevo-like Talashkino Estate near Smolensk, fetched £125,000. This was one of seven Enchanted Creatures the Princess made in Paris in 1908. Three other pieces from the series were sold by Christie’s London in 2010: a Fish (£217,250), a Pigeon (£157,250), and a Swan (£121,250).
After a lowest-ever total of £17.2m last December, takings from Russian Auction Week in London were down another 5% this June to £16.4m. Sotheby’s and Christie’s, who usually have Top Tens whistling through cyberspace the minute their auctions have finished, did not even bother issuing post-sale Press-Releases.
There were, however, indications that the worst of the market-slump may be behind us. The number of lots was stable at just under 1,100; while the selling-rate was up 1% at 57% – suggesting that consignors are finally adjusting to new market realities by becoming less greedy. Signs of recovery seem slightly stronger for Pictures than for Works of Art.
Sotheby’s remain comfortably the prime mover in the field as a whole, with a market-share of 50.6%. But their auction total of £8.3m was their lowest-ever during Russian Week, and only the second time they have failed to clear £10m. Christie’s market-share fell by 4% to 26.8%. MacDougall’s progressed by 7.5% to 20.4%, and they now rank firmly number two for Pictures, ahead of Christie’s – who continue to dominate Works Of Art. Bonhams’ sale total of £352,000 was the lowest-ever recorded by a firm during Russian Week; their market-share, which used to hover at around 8%, now stands at just over 2%.
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All images are courtesy of the author.
Please click here to read the June 2016 post-sale survey by Simon Hewitt.