“Sensational results at Christies London Sales of Russian Art”, screamed the headlines and, taking aside the fact that one painting accounted for well over half of the £16,172,688 haul, Christies should hold up their heads and sing. Just not Country.
There is little denying that the KPV is far and away the best thing to have appeared on our Sahara-like market for some time, just like there is no denying that, if the picture is right, the market follows. Contrary to what certain myopic, soon-to-be-history experts tell us, good provenance and, if possible, credible exhibition history (this does not include a show dedicated to, ‘recent discoveries from under Granny’s Pechka’, at the Rybninsk Regional Museum of Ethnography) are of vital importance.
Some of the prices were at pre-2008 levels. Several of the lots by Sergei Chekhonin, for example, achieved staggering results. A cover for the journal ‘Russian Art’, the pre-cursor for a much classier English-language publication over a hundred years later went for £62,500 on a £2-3,000 estimate. Lot 29, however, a collection of textile designs with a £10-15,000 estimate went one better, achieving £150,000.
My own favourite lot, Annenkov’s ‘Cockroaches’, a marvellous piece of sub-Bulgakov Sovietica performed admirably achieving £52,500 (I really do need to check if this is hammer price or including commission) against an £8-12,000 estimate but another lot on which I had placed a certain amount of faith, Grigoriev’s ‘Portrait of a woman in a jacket with frog-fasteners’ (for brevity’s sake, Japanese) failed to sell.
I loved the bidding process with the top lot. The auctioneer tentatively opened the proceedings with a rather weasel-like, ‘shall we start at £800,000?’ only to be torpedoed by the ever-charming Sarah Mansfield’s telephone bidder sending him, in local parlance, ‘to three letters’ with a two million, ‘oh-do-let’s-get-on-with-it’ bid. The room got the joke.
Christies almost achieved the near impossible, a sell-out. Even though, rather irritatingly, they no longer include lots that were unsold on the results part of their site and I am far too lazy and underpaid to actually check, it is clear that Old Jimmy’s achieved well over 75% sold. To counter any sense of favouritism, the management of our august organ have decided to reproduce the photo of the Christies Russian Department in their moment of glory. ‘Alex and the Architectons’, will be performing at a venue near you soon.
Clearly there is a lot to be optimistic about. Some of the worst pictures in the History of Art were sold for very adequate prices. Among the Roll of Shame were a Bogatyr by Westchiloff – which brings to mind a gag by PG Wodehouse. “If this is what West Chill Off is like, imagine South Chill Off”. Ouch. Klever too, managed to sneak the hound from hell under the radar, but that was at Sotheby’s who, also, have much to be pleased about.
SOAP SELLS AND A NON-CONFORMIST REVIVAL?
Despite a slightly lower number of lots sold than by their King Street Cousins, Sotheby’s top items did well and the sale was an overall success. A Still Life by Larionov, the subject of polite murmuring pre-sale on account of its quality, sold over and above top estimate whilst a(nother) Sunset by Aivasovsky sold for nearly £1m hammer. Had the setting sun, sometimes compared to a slice of underdone roast beef, not been present, one can only shudder at the potential price…….
The utter inability of the reviewer to correctly forecast the sale results, I had made some wild predictions whilst lecturing at Sotheby’s the previous afternoon, was no better illustrated than by Sotheby’s lot 14, a Makovsky Pears Soap Cover Picture entitled, ‘Dreamy Boyarina contemplates freedom from Chauvinist Husband’. Aside from being a work that makes Kharlarmov look revolutionary, it sold for nearly twice its upper estimate. Well, no-one ever made a fortune by over-estimating the taste of the English either……..
Solid results were achieved for a fine Polenov landscape of the Oka, a Georgy Nissky, two ghastly (is there any other type?) Bogdanov Belskys, one of two Latvian Tour Guides, the other a Young Student putting a pencil through his cheek, and an excellent Boris Grigoriev, but it was the results for the Soviet non-conformist paintings that most stood out.
The previous day at Christies had seen something of a car crash for the non-conformists with only 5 out of 16 lots selling but Sotheby’s turned the tables on these disappointing results with a white-glove, no-holds-barred 20/20 lots sold. Two large pictures by Oleg Tselkov sold for £110,000 hammer on much lower estimates whilst a fine work on paper by Bulatov was snapped up for nearly double high estimate. Nonetheless, the cynic in me cannot but draw attention to one lot in the ‘utter-stich-up’ category, a painting by Zurab Tsereteli that sold for over three times its high estimate.
I am only aware of results at Macdougall’s and Bonhams, thanks to the fine work of Simon Hewitt, my predecessor in the job. Simon is a master reviewer in whose shadow I may permanently lie and the gentleman to whom most reviewers should doff their caps.
As is commonly known, I have considerable admiration for Macdougalls and the way they have muscled into the maelstrom of Russian Art. Furthermore, any auction house that comes up with a picture as good as Annenkov’s superlative portrait of Alexander Bozheryanov must be doing well. My stand-out lot of the week, I was concerned at the high estimate and, somewhat justifying my fears, the lot limped across line at its reserve. At least it sold.
Other highlights included a very solid price for the top lot, Bakhchisarai by Kustodiev. Simon Hewitt points to a 25% return on it over a five-year period but the results at Macdougalls felt slightly like a mixed bag. Good, commercial paintings such as Vereshchagin’s View of Mtskheta or Konchalovsky’s Woodcutters were brought in though Macdougalls failure to sell Vasnetsov’s Young Dreams did much to restore my faith in humanity.
Macdougalls also had considerable success with non-conformists with only 3 out of 28 lots unsold. Prices were high – a world record for Ovchinnikov, slightly the forgotten man of the non-conformists and a solid performance by Yevgeny Rukhin. I confess to a certain soft spot for this man mountain, killed in a fire at his studio in Leningrad in 1976. His visceral canvasses and installations are among the more brutal representations of Soviet Reality. Mid-1970’s Tselkov sold well again and an exceptional Fabisovich, Sots art at its best, sold for £135,000.
Whilst I am duty bound to point out the miracle sales, Sorin’s Girl with Ballet Shoes must rank high in the Pantheon, Anisfeld’s Wayside Cross too, Macdougall’s achieved an extremely respectable 46% of lots sold with a £5,350,000 overall sales figure and a 15% market share. This rather left our final candidate, Bonham’s, trailing in their wake.
I was unnecessarily rude about their top lot by Maliavin which, contrary to my expectations, sold as did my ultimate horror lots by Grigory Maltzeff and Antoine Tzapoff showing, yet again, never to trust the reviewer. A set of Sudiekin theatrical works also made healthy figures and, again, the non-conformists showed well, Oleg Tselkov for £125,000, for example but an earlier slew of unsold lots slightly spoilt the overall picture of what was a healthy and optimistic Russian Art Week.