NOT EVEN coronavirus, and the cancellation of the traditional start-of-June Russian Week of sale previews and auctions, could stem the flow of cash through Moscow-on-Thames this Summer, as £13.3 million changed hands in three auctions staged erratically over a period extending from May 26 to July 21 (with viewing possible only by appointment). Sotheby’s and Christie’s sales were drawn-out affairs with bidding on-line, while MacDougall’s (after some technical glitches) changed tack and opted for a ‘live auction’ with bidding in real time – and auctioneer Charlie Ross starring on computer screens from Hammersmith to Khabarovsk, pretending he was in a roomful of punters rather than flanked by just a handful of bid-baiting staff glued to their phones.
‘Our buyers prefer traditional auctions compared with the timed auctions of our competitors’ explained the firm’s bristle-bearded, bear-like boss William MacDougall. ‘They much prefer seeing the auctioneer, and bidding on the telephone. A timed auction is effectively commission-only: it can’t be followed or have regular bids in the way most collectors are used to buying.’
Be that as it may, Sotheby’s – who led off from May 26-31 – comfortably led the way with a 395-lot sale that grossed £8m, arming them with a whopping 60% P.V.E. (Post-Vickery Era) market-share. Christie’s had less reason to be pleased: their sprawling, late-in-the-day, 305-lot sale brought just £3.3m – their lowest-ever Russian Sale total – despite lasting three weeks (July 1-21). The contents were dismissed as ‘little more than bric-à-brac’ by veteran Mayfair dealer Andre Ruzhnikov, and Christie’s did themselves few favours with an incoherent, mish-mash on-line presentation that was impossible to navigate.
MacDougall’s 200-lot sale on May 30 garnered £2m for a 15% market-share, leaving ‘King William’ well satisfied given the dramatic reduction in his firm’s operational costs: unlike the Big Two, MacDougall’s are obliged to rent expensive West End premises for viewings and auctions.
Russian Pictures totalled £5.6m at Sotheby’s, with plenty of first-time buyers. Two attractive Ayvazovskys headlined proceedings with double-estimate prices: Passing Ship on a Moonlit Night (1868) at £435,000, and a hefty Bay of Naples (1878) at £2.3m. This had sold in 2008 for CHF 2m (then worth £985,000) at Koller in Zurich, consigned by a German family who traded in Tsarist Russia.
A clutch of pretty if hardly frontline works by familiar names sold well, including Shishkin’s Bench in the Shade for £106,250, Choultsé’s Swiss snowscape Janvier (Engadine) for £93,750, and Bogdanov-Belsky’s New Songs for £87,500. Konchalovsky’s 1920 Green Oak Trees at Twilight made £150,000 and his 1922 Indian Summer £118,750.
A startling, neo-Malevich Girl without a Passport (1933) by the under-rated Konstantin Rozhdestvensky claimed £112,500, but there was a derisory response to Solomon Nikritin, despite his being one of the most singular artists in the Costakis Collection. His dishevelled gouache Self-Portrait took just £3,250, his views of Crimea and Tverskayawere unsold, and only Moscow After The Rain did anything at all, fetching £18,750.
Five warring bidders sent Vasily Shukhaev’s 1934 caricature of 21 Reigning Monarchs of the World to £56,250 – over seven times low-estimate – while six bidders pushed Vladimir Stozharov’s Tkachevesque landscape 1956 Autumn–Invshino to £60,000, ten times estimate, with 35 bids placed on-line. Stozharov’s weightier Trading Arcades – Kostroma, also from 1956, changed hands for £68,750. Irina Vitman’s large 1962 Under the Shower tripled hopes on £25,000 and Igor Obrosov’s Portrait of the Actress O.S. (1974), in tempera on masonite, zoomed to £75,000, setting a new record for the artist. Sotheby’s were unable to identify the mystery woman (below right).
With its scarlet flowerbeds, psychedelic parasols and summer-frocked floozies lounging on benches every bit as orange as the steep-sloping Baltic roofs across the road, Alexander Tikhomirov’s neo-Fauve 1960 Street in Palanga (a classic mistranslation of на улице, which means simply outdoors) is perhaps the most compelling rendering of Communist Paradise on canvas. As such it is one of the most important Russian paintings of the 20th century – so whoever snared it for £21,250 deserves a large vodka and the Order of Lenin. Tikhomirov (1916-95) was an interesting character. He grew up in Baku, losing his right eye as a child, then studied at the Surikov Institute in Moscow – being expelled for Formalism on account of his passion for Matisse and Van Gogh. The sense of rhythm evident in his view of Palanga (a Lithuanian seaside resort north of Klaipeda) reflected his love of classical music: he liked to paint to the sound of Scriabin, Stravinsky or Rakhmaninov.
Only two pictures cleared £100,000 at Christie’s: an Arkhipov Peasant Girl and a Vera Rokhlin View of Tbilisi. Both took £250,000. Rokhlin’s Danseurs de Tango also sold well at £87,500, against an estimate of £6,000-8,000 that looked like a misprint. Christie’s most exciting painting was a market-fresh view of the Gulf of Finland by the precocious Fyodor Vasiliev, who died at just 23 and is hardly ever seen at auction. The estimate (£30-50,000) was a joke too, and the £75,000 price a giveaway; if Christie’s had rechristened this mournful view of swampy coastline ‘St Petersburg before Peter the Great’ it might have rated nearer £750,000. A Pasternak Still Life scored £87,500 and a much-touted Bakst Sadko costume-design £27,500.
MacDougall’s sale was originally meant to be on-line only (April 30–May 16), but was abruptly cancelled hours before it was due to conclude, MacDougall’s citing ‘serious technical problems’ with Invaluable, their on-line platform, with ‘people at times unable to log in or leave bids.’
‘Any disruption in a sale is tough for an auction house, so we understand MacDougall’s frustration’ acknowledged Andrew Gully, Invaluable’s Director of Communications, before insisting: ‘The issue at MacDougall’s was not on our end. It sounds as though they may be have had an issue with their local ISP [internet service provider].’
It was Korovin who starred when MacDougall’s sale finally got underway on May 30: his Eiffel Tower by Night took £182,000, Le Port de Nice £175,500, and Boulogne £65,000. That was an unhelpful title given that there is a Boulogne-sur-Mer on the Channel coast, a Boulogne-Billancourt in the Paris suburbs, and that Boulogne is French for Bologna in Italy. Airy talk of beach resorts in MacDougall’s lot-description suggested it was the Boulogne next to Calais, while the fierce-looking sun looked more Italian. However, as Korovin is buried in Billancourt Cemetery, chances are it was the suburbs.
A Gorbatov winter view of Sergiev Possad climbed to £156,000, a Sokolov-Skalya look at the Moscow Kremlin to £149,500 and a Shishkin Forestscape to £93,600. Mikhail Tkachenko’s Tsar Nicolas II & French President Armand Fallières on 31 July 1909 sailed to a mid-estimate £97,500. There was no topographical indication, in this assiduous depiction of big buntinged ships, that they were actually anchored in the Port of Cherbourg as claimed.
Vasily Vereshchagin’s Iconostasis of the Church of St John the Evangelist, in the Ishnya wooden church built in 1687 just outside Rostov Veliky, took £43,200. The work featured in the 1888 Vereshchagin solo show in Paris and sold in New York in 1891 to Silas Paine, a Director of Standard Oil. Two larger Vereshchagins with the same subject are in St Petersburg’s Russian Museum.
George Annenkov’s Still Life with Bottles and Flowers took £100,200 and another 17 Annenkov costume-designs sold for around £1,000 apiece. Ukrainian artist Sasha Zalyuk (1887-1971) caught the eye with a couple of wittily erotic offerings, Ladies on a Hat (at £5,200) and Lady with a Goat (at £5,850). Zalyuk was a denizen of interwar Montparnasse, where he rubbed at least shoulders with Kiki and Josephine Baker, not to mention Foujita and Picasso.
A Nadezhda Udaltsova Self-Portrait at the Dacha (1949) that made £45,900 offered sad evidence of the artistic decline of the once-great Avant-Garde amazon. Even so, this nondescript work was probably painted clandestinely – Udaltsova was a non-person under Stalin after the slaying of her husband Alexander Drevin in 1938.
WORKS OF ART
Sotheby’s Works of Art posted £2.4m, an increase of almost 20% on the firm’s corresponding sale in June 2019. That upsurge was largely down to the £375,000 paid for a museum-quality Fabergé icon (above): a 31 x 27cm gem-set silver and enamel icon of Christ Pantokrator – owned by Russian tea merchant Nikon Molchanov, and consigned by his family (who fled to Canada via Harbin, and now live on the East Coast of the United States). There were half-a-dozen bidders and the price set a new auction record for a Fabergé icon, ahead of a Virgin & Child icon that made £245,000 at Sotheby’s in 2016.
The sale’s ninety or so pieces of Fabergé were a mundane array on the whole, the highlights being a Wigström picture-frame in three-colour gold that doubled low-estimate at £40,000, and a silver-gilt and lilac guilloché enamel Wigström clock at a top-estimate £60,000. A silver caviar dish in the form of a fish landed £11,250, double top-estimate, and a gold and champlevé enamel egg-pendant soared to £22,500. But a silver-gilt and enamel frame by Mikhail Perchin (est. £20-30,000) failed to sell, having languished for many years in the American trade.
Christie’s three-dozen lots of Fabergé totalled a modest £300,000; two-thirds found takers. Top price here was £40,000 for a gem-set silver-gilt icon of a Guardian Angel by workmaster AP (identified by Christie’s as Alexander Petrov). A gold-mounted guilloché enamel carnet de bal by Wigström sold just past high-estimate for £35,000, but a plainish Wigström desk clock failed to sell against an over-ambitious £50-70,000 estimate.
Christie’s outgunned Sotheby’s for both Imperial and Soviet Porcelain, raking in £106,250 for an 1832 Imperial Porcelain military plate signed P. Nesterov, featuring a Cossack Trumpeter. Two rare plates from the Yusupov factory at Arkhangelskoye (1829) made £40,000 at Sotheby’s. The same price greeted an 1833 Imperial Porcelain plate featuring a Junker of the Caucasus Life-Guards. Three lots from Nicholas I’s Coronation Service sold well at £27,500 apiece, but Sotheby’s biggest success came from a dozen Kornilov plates illustrated with Russian fairy-tales after Ivan Bilibin, which landed a double-estimate £75,000, or £6250 a plate.
Christie’s top porcelain price was £150,000 for a recherché Sovnarkom propaganda plate from 1921 (est. £20-30,000) whose virtuoso flower patterning incorporated discreet lettering (above). They also sold a 1921 plate with a lugubrious Alisa Galenkina monochrome portrait of Maxim Gorky for £50,000. Over at Sotheby’s a 1920 plate featuring the word KOMMUNA (Commune) in stylized Cyrillic lettering fetched a triple-estimate £43,750.
SILVER & ENAMEL
The Russian silver on offer largely struggled. At Sotheby’s a six-piece tea- and coffee-service by Sazikov (1861/2), estimate £50-70,000, went nowhere. A large, neo-rococo mirror (4ft tall), made by Jean-Baptiste Vaillant in St Petersburg in 1846 and topped by the Yusupov coat-of-arms, raised £22,500 while a routine samovar by Grachev (St Petersburg 1893) cleared double-estimate at £20,000.
Samovars’ enduring appeal was underlined at Christie’s, where a handsome specimen made by Kurlyukov of Moscow around 1890 exceeded hopes with £32,500. But the silver item to which Christie’s had granted their highest estimate – a 1747 tankard marked Boris Gavrilov touted at £20,000-30,000 – attracted no interest. Christie’s were even reduced to filling out their sale with non-matching items of different periods. A clutch of ‘table articles’ in Tula steel (est. £4,000-6,000) was the most brazen example; it didn’t even have much potential as scrap metal, and sank without a trace. But a rare bronze seated figure of Peter the Great by Alexander Opekushin, cast by Sokolov around 1872, attracted plenty of interest, selling over-estimate for £40,000.
Christie’s fared better with their enamels: a Rückert kovsh with an en plein miniature roared to £118,750, and a photograph frame by Sazikov, curiously shaped like a horse’s yoke, sped past top-estimate to £25,000.
Only a Vladimir Ovchinnikov Annunciation, at £11,250, flew the contemporary flag at Christie’s – but Sotheby’s offered 37 works, 23 (62%) of them selling for a total £345,000. Top price was a mid-estimate £50,000 for Gorokhovsky’s large, 1983 Group Portrait in an Interior depicting Ilya Kabakov, Viktor Pivovarov and Ivan Chuikov, among others. Merab Abramishvili’s giant 1993 Paradise followed on £43,750, while a colourful Roman Bust by Mikhail Chemyakin, dated 1978-1990 on the back, hit a triple-estimate £30,000.
MacDougall’s enjoyed a healthy take-up of 69% for their contemporary art, with 33 of their 48 lots selling for a total of £531,000, including eighteen prices of over £10,000.
Giant drip-technique architectural scenes by Valery Koshlyakov were in high demand – his Paris Opera warbling to £93,600, Notre-Dame diptych chiming in with £70,200 and Luzhniki Stadium triptych tearing to £59,800. I saw Valery working on this triptych in 2008, in his studio in Les Lilas on the outskirts of Paris (see above).
There was also a trio of works by those half-forgotten kitsch twins, Dubosarsky & Vinogradov, led by American Beauty at £36,400; and no few than four Gorokhovskys in different styles that each came with an £10-20,000 estimate and each sold for £13,000.
There were good prices for Ivan Chuikhov – £32,400 for N° 8 from his Postcards series – and Dmitry Prigov – £14,850 for his Nightmare diptych; and satisfactory ones for Mikhail Roginsky (£12,060 for a 1990 Grey Composition), Dmitry Krasnopevtsev (£11,700 for Still Life with Cactus) and Evgeny Rukhin (£9,620 for RunawayObjects of Art).
The Vladey saleroom in Moscow sold just 47% of the 113 lots in their quaintly titled ‘Spring Auction’ on June 27 – yet their sale total of €1.04m (£944,000) exceeded the combined £890,000 that changed hands for Russian contemporary in the London sales.
Oleg Vasiliev dominated the sale with two London-level prices: €162,000 for Walk Under the Rain (1990) and €168,000 for Space II (1992). But High Water (2006) failed to sell against an estimate of €120-135,000. It came from Vasiliev’s winter landscape series painted in North America towards the end of life – a series that is relatively unfamiliar to a domestic Russian audience.
There were solid prices for mid-range works by Tselkov (€52,800 for his 1989 Collector and Collectors) and Krasnopevtsev (€48,000 for his 1971 Mahogany and Hanging Stone with Feathers). Some artists, though, were treated in what, to Western eyes, seemed baffling fashion.
Sergei Shablavin was represented by a pretty but unremarkable 1982 work, Verticals, whose €20-30,000 estimate seemed ludicrously high compared to the mid-estimate £7,800 paid at MacDougall’s for his eye-teasing Sky Over The City (1980).
Alexei Sundukov’s ironic depictions of queues and parades have a cult following among international aficionados of Non-Conformism, with his iconic Prolonged and Undiminished Applause chosen by Matthew Bown for the cover of his seminal book on Russian Contemporary Art published in 1994. So to see Sundukov’s smartly-booted, bored-to-death Passengers on the Metro (below) offered at Vladey with a €5,000-7,000-estimate was bewildering. It flew to €32,200 – peanuts all the same. Vladey vozhd Vladimir Ovcharenko told me that Sundukov was a ‘name forbidden’ (i.e. outlawed in Soviet times) ‘with not so strong market’ in Russia. His atypical Bouquet Lepros from 1983 – a single, diseased, Naïve figure – sold for €6,000.
To see Alexei Kallima’s giant, 2008 red chalk/charcoal drawing of the Chechen Women’s Skydiving Team took me back to the days when Kallima (himself from Chechnya) was the hottest young thing on the Moscow market, and energetically promoted by Marat Guelman. The flying ladies fetched €14,400. I had lost track of Kallima since his show of market-stall still lifes at Vladimir Ovcharenko’s short-lived London gallery in 2013 (which included a ceiling-hugging installation acquired by Igor Tsukanov), so I was pleased to see a 2019 Kallima – his oil on canvas Electric Rain – on offer at Vladey. It took €13,200 but left me unconvinced that Kallima has improved with age: as a graphic artist he was the best I have seen in post-Soviet times, alongside Kirill Chelushkin.
Although the Bonhams website already posts the date of their next Russian Sale as November 25, Sotheby’s and Christie’s have yet to announce their plans – and the idea of Russian Week, with its cocktail parties and busy salerooms, returning this Autumn seems utopic in current circumstances.
‘The auction business will return to traditional auctions when we’re past the coronavirus crisis – perhaps for the June or December 2021 Russian Week’ forecasts William MacDougall, adding: ‘If there are no exhibitions due to coronavirus restrictions and visa difficulties, there is no need to crowd the Russian auctions into one week.’ MacDougall’s next auction is duly slated for September 30.
Private collectors are understandably reluctant to consign right now, with cash-choked dealers the main source of supply. This Summer’s sale total of £13m, however, suggests there are still plenty of buyers out there – especially for quality items.