THIS WAS THE DULLEST Russian Auction Week anyone can remember…. Our International Editor Simon Hewitt presents a comprehensive overview of Russian art sales that have taken place in London earlier this June.
With Anglo-Russian relations at an all-time low, there had never been a less encouraging time to consign. A number of Moscow collectors stayed away because of visa difficulties, and auction attendance was down around 20%. Total sales slumped 41% from last November to £23.9m. So limp were the proceedings that none of the firms bothered to issue a post-sale press release.
With nothing major for Avant-Garde or Fabergé fans to get there teeth into, only two lots were expected to reach £1m: a late Shishkin at MacDougall’s, and an imposing pair of Imperial porcelain vases at Sotheby’s. Both failed, leaving an Alexander Yakovlev red chalk and charcoal drawing of a Dancer in Spanish Costume as the week’s highlight with a double-estimate £1.11m at Christie’s. Yakovlev also starred at Sotheby’s, where his 1922 Harlequin, in similar media, soared to £730,000.
Christie’s sale began with a dozen works by Konstantin Somov, donated to his young friend Boris Snejkovsky and consigned by the latter’s descendants. A 1933 Somov Self-Portrait in pencil, crayon and red chalk impressed on £172,500, and his 1936 oil painting of Boris Snejkovsky in Profile rated £72,500.
Boris Grigoriev’s 1924 female portrait, La Mère Agathe, made a top-estimate £369,000 and his 1920 Masked Woman, in pencil and gouache, £60,000. Two French works by Yuri Annenkov sold well: Les Bouteilles (1930) at £187,500 and his undated L’Arc de Triomphe at £175,000. Stelletsky’s four-part The Hunt galloped to £156,000, with Christie’s jokingly likening it to a work by Renaissance master Paolo Uccello.
Tchelitchew’s whimsical Three Acrobats in Feathered Head-Dresses (1938) quadrupled hopes on £32,500; his skull-like pencil/crayon Tchaikovsky (1949) took £18,750. There were no fewer than 17 Tchelitchews, all from the Seymour Stein Collection, over at Sotheby’s; nine sold for a total £723,000, led by his multi-portrait Excelsior (1934) at £418,000 and 1931 Rose Necklace at £200,000.
Four works seen in recent years at TEFAF Maastricht (something the catalogue curiously failed to indicate), consigned by the same cashflow-conscious London dealer, sold in line with estimate: Yermilov’s Design for a Room in the Kharkov Palace of Pioneers (c.1934) at £50,000; Volkov’s Oriental Fantasy for £23,750; Larionov’s 1915 Jester Costume Design at £18,750; and a Grigoriev drawing, Cabaret, at £10,625.
Vasily Shukhayev’s 1922 Russian Landscape impressed on £418,000, ahead of Nesterov’s 1922 Lonely Woman at £370,000 and Konchalovsky’s 1919 Yellow Dacha – Kuntsevo on £298,000. An atypical early Malevich was unsold but Vera Yermolayeva’s Suprematist Façade Design (1920) raced to a quintuple-estimate £262,000. Goncharova’s undated, late-looking Autumn Colours still life made £274,000.
Larionov’s sketchy Nu aux Contours Roses rated £169,000 at MacDougall’s, selling in new premises on The Mall. They proposed a ten-lot ensemble from an Important European Collection: six sold, yielding £1.68m, with a top price of £359,000 for Chaim Soutine, an artist seldom included in Russian Art sales. Kuznetsov’s 1904 Fountain followed on £333,000. A 1927 Saryan view of Tbilisi took £307,000, and Nikolai Krymov’s 1911 Before the Rain made £268,500. Nine small, deft watercolours (1919-21) by Alexei Grishenko all sold, totalling a double-estimate £35,000.
Bonhams’ top price was an up-on-estimate £237,000 for a 1930s Fechin Still Life with Daisies, while at the Bruun Rasmussen sale in Copenhagen on June 8 – which garnered a total DKK 6m (£700,000) – top price was DKK 650,000 (£77,000) for a Feodor Sychkov snowscape, Russian Village (1934).
19TH CENTURY PICTURES
Bruun Rasmussen also had the week’s top Shishkin: a Spring Landscape by a Winding Brook that rated DKK 400,000 (£47,000). MacDougall’s made up for the saleless fate of their 1897 Shishkin Pine Forest (est. £800,000-1.2m) by selling the week’s most expensive Ayvazovsky, a Dutch-looking Ukrainian Moonlit Landscape (1870), for £258,500.
Christie’s offered three more Ayvazovskys, notably his 1889 Coast at Koktebel (Crimea) for £200,000, while Sotheby’s had no fewer than seven – led by his 1851 Moonlit Chapel by the Sea on £225,000. A landlocked Bogolyubov claimed £75,000 here.
Bonhams sold Levitan’s 1888 Field of Rye for £68,750, but his later and more important Snowy Meadow remained on the block.
Most of the Soviet art was at MacDougall’s, where house favourite Alexander Deneika rated £345,000 with an unprepossessing 1955 Woman In Yellow Dress and £74,000 with his 1950s bronze Seated Nude. Nissky scored £243,000 with a Reclining Nude (c.1959) and £97,500 with his 1950s train-in-snowscape En Route. Shevchenko pulled in £195,000 for his 1939 Spring-Cleaning in the Park, while £182,000 rewarded both George Rublev’s 1933 Klopovo and Yuri Pimenov’s Japanese-inspired Wet Posters (1973). Samokhvalov’s 1965 Standing Nude from the Back bared her all for £175,500.
Andrei Korotkov’s 1949 Football Match, taking place (as the catalogue curiously failed to observe) at Dynamo Kiev’s quaint, tree-lined ground in central Kiev, exceeded hopes on £106,250 to become Sotheby’s top Soviet painting. At the insistence of artful Chelsea fan Lord Poltimore, keen to honour the Russian World Cup, Sotheby’s lined their staircase with a giant blow-up of this work for the pre-sale viewing. Rublev’s 1933 Relay Race was unsold, but Maximov’s Boats in a Chinese Port sailed to £68,750 and two minor Popkovs claimed £15,000 apiece.
Contemporary highlight was a 1963 Tselkov Group Portrait with Watermelon that Igor Tsukanov snaffled for £187,500 at Christie’s.
‘I expected heavy bidding for this important and historic Tselkov painting’, — Igor told me afterwards. ‘I was prepared to bid much higher, but there was no strong competition. It was a very good deal as far as I am concerned!’
Tselkov was also contemporary top dog at MacDougall’s, where his 1974 Portrait of Maya Lugovskaya took £61,600. His smaller, 1978 Untitled in mixed media on card mustered £22,500 at Bonhams.
Works by Vladimir Ovchinnikov (1941-2015) graced two salerooms, with his son Misha – manager of the Fabergé Museum in St Petersburg – dispatching his glamorous assistant, Princess Sofia Grigoryeva, to keep an eye on things. She was delighted to see Vladimir’s Kazan Cathedral (1983) spin to a quadruple-estimate £43,750 at Sotheby’s. Over at MacDougall’s, Clearing Snow (1991) made £14,300 and Angel Behind A Telescope (2007) took £4680.
Another late-departed artist to figure prominently during Russian Week was Ernst Neizvestny (1925-2016). A set of 22 extraordinary drawings on the theme of Dante’s Inferno, in pencil and pastel on grey paper and dated 1987, tripled predictions with £20,000 at Bonhams – despite half of them being appallingly framed, and the other half not framed at all.
Bonhams also sold Neizvestny’s gouache and acrylic Man with Mask (1986) for £8,750, while MacDougall’s rampant auctioneer Charlie Ross coaxed a bid of £21,600, seven times estimate, for his bronze Half-Robot (numberd 9/9).
An increasingly raucous Ross raced to £59,800 with a Nesterova Queue, and £48,600 with On the Train by Faibisovich. Both works were painted in 1986 – as was the Faibisovich beach scene, Contemplation N°2, that rated £40,000 at Sotheby’s. Taking a Rest, a larger but much later Faibisovich (2008), made do with £15,000.
Sotheby’s also sold a couple of Krasnopevtsevs for £21,250 – one of them an unwontedly colourful effort from 1959 – but were again outsold for the artist by MacDougall’s, who pulled in £28,600 for The Stove (1960) and £22,100 for his 1959 Composition. A large Komar & Melamid, from their Anarachic Syntheses series (1985/6), made a Big Mac £36,500; Shablavin’s early, 36-squared Memories of the Sea floated to £10,400; and Tatyana Nazarenko’s 2007 Bathers in the Village Pond landed £11,700.
Christie’s had a variety of works by Nemukhin, Rabin, Zverev and Vladimir Yakovlev – selling Nemukhin’s Gaming Table (1989) for £27,500; Rabin’s Book N°3 (1969) for £22,500; four 1969 Yakovlev gouaches for £15,000; and Zverev’s House and Tree (1967) for £13,750.
Sotheby’s top contemporary price was £68,750 for Sokov’s 1994 bronze group Lenin & Giacometti (5/6), followed by Weisberg’s Eleven Test Tubes (1975) at £60,000. Highlight at Bonhams was Ekaterina Vorona’s Sakura (2015) at £22,500. An intriguing Self-Portrait with Muse by Armenian artist Edmond Zakaryan, exhibited in Leningrad shortly after it was painted in 1962, looked a good buy at £8,750.
WORKS OF ART
Christie’s, as usual, led the way here with a Sudbinin white marble bust of a Woman with Braided Hair that soared to £309,000, five times estimate, on the back of rumours that it portrayed Anna Akhmatova.
Despite the failure of their pair of monumental 1825 vases (est. £1-1.5m), Sotheby’s generated hefty prices for Imperial Porcelain, selling 129 pieces from the Banqueting Service of Grand Duke Alexander Alexandrovich (future Tsar Alexander III), divided into eleven lots, for a triple-estimate £272,500, and a set of Nicholas I flower-patterned Imperial Porcelain luncheon plates for £115,000.
MacDougall’s offered 84 pieces from the colourful Grand Duke Mikhail Pavlovich Service, made for Nicholas I’s younger brother, in 14 lots; all sold, for a combined £152,225.
A 5½-inch Imperial Porcelain Easter Egg (c.1890) flew to £112,500, ten times the estimate, at Christie’s, where a 1922 Marochka figure made by what was now the State Porcelain Factory, after a model by Natalya Danko, soared to £118,750 and a 1923 propaganda plate, with a psychedelic Anton Komashka design of a worker wielding a hammer, striding to £106,250.
Five Soviet Porcelain plates dated 1921, led by a Rudolf Vilde open-book design on £38,750, sold for over £25,000 at Sotheby’s – who recorded the week’s top Fabergé price of £200,000 for an 1897 rectangular gold and enamel box by Michael Perchin, its lid set with the diamond-studded cipher of Nicholas II.
Christie’s sold an earthenware Duck (1899-1908), with body by Moscow’s Stroganov School and silver mounts by Fabergé, for £150,000. A Fabergé Chimpanzee (c.1915), carved from agatized petrified wood, made £106,250 but an obsidian Sea-Lion and purpurin Rabbit were unsold. A Fabergé silver-framed St Nicholas icon, with the maker’s mark of Viktor Aaarne (St Petersburg 1899-1908), fetched a mid-estimate £52,000 at MacDougall’s.