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LIBIDO DRIVES THE RUSSIAN ART MARKET, AS DEMAND FOR NUDES OUTSTRIPS PINE TREES AND CHURCH BELFRIES — FIRST RUSSIAN ART SALE OF THE LONDON SEASON

by John Helmer, Moscow 
  @bears_with [1]

The anxiety of the times causes most kinds of demand to droop. So it was to be expected that weakening share prices on the Moscow exchange and low crude oil prices would not bode well for the first of the autumn Russian Art Week auctions in London. This took place at Macdougall’s, live as well as online, on Thursday afternoon. The demand for nudes was firm, though.

With total sales of £2.3 million, “the auction today went well, in spite of the current uncertainties”, commented William Macdougall. He noted there were new buyers, especially for the lower priced works on paper.

But the biggest of the names on offer, Nicholas Roerich’s 1903 view of the belfry of the Pskov-Pechory Monastery, failed to reach the minimum reserve in its estimated range of £400,000 to £600,000. The grim painting disappeared in 1904, when a US dealer stole it after the St. Louis World Exhibition. The elapse of time since then, apparently on the wall of a European collector, hasn’t helped this canvas, despite Roerich’s strong price showing in earlier auctions [2].  

Pine trees by Ivan Shishkin and Crimean seascapes by Ivan Aivazovsky usually do well in London at this time of year. Shishkin’s two pictures, “Pine Forest” of 1892 and “Summer Afternoon by the River” of 1870, led the auction results, with sale prices of £508,000 and £452,000 respectively. The demand for Shishkin comes from corporate boardrooms because the paintings are inoffensive, green, and keep their capital value. No Crimea-named painting and no Aivazovsky seascapes were on offer. An anonymous “follower of Ivan Aivazovsky” failed to find a buyer for his view of Odessa by moonlight.

A total of 80 lots sold out of 211 on Macdougall’s block; that’s a clearance rate of 38%. This is down on Macdougall’s clearance of 44% a year ago, in November 2019 [3]. For more analysis of that Russian Art Week, read this [4]. For this week’s Macdougall’s catalogue, click [5]. The results can be followed here [6].  

“These are indeed difficult times,” Macdougall (right) said, “with lots of uncertainties about the world economy, oil prices, and the pandemic, and of course Russian, Ukrainian, and even French buyers were unable to travel to London for the auctions due to quarantine rules, while exhibitions were constrained and large audiences banned under lockdown rules.  Is the glass half full or half empty?  We think it was a good result under the circumstances and a sign that things should pick up in a year or two.”

Christie’s and Sotheby’s have scheduled their London Week auctions next month on November 23 [7], and November 24 [8], respectively.

One in ten of the works on display yesterday were nudes. Ten sold; 12 failed to reach their reserve. That’s a clearance rate of 46%, several points better than the auction result as a whole. By the measure of how much more buyers were willing to pay than the auction house estimate, the nudes proved to be eye-opening. Pavel Chmaroff’s “Nude by the flowers” (lead image) fetched £7,800, 56% above the top of the range estimate. This undated work from the early 20th century appears to be the first trans portrait to  go under the hammer at London week. Zinaida Serebriakova’s “Reclining Nude” of 1917 came with a sketch of her mother, fully clothed,  on the reverse side of the canvas; it sold for £80,253 – double the estimate.

Left,  Zinaida Serebriakova’s “Reclining Nude”; right, verso, Serebriakova’s mother and a friend on their estate in Kharkiv oblast.  

Another best-seller was Alexander Yakovlev’s “Portrait of a young Bando woman”, which sold at £43,200, also double the estimate.  A set of three works by Sacha Zaliouk, “At the Beach”, “After the Bath” and “Swimmers”, fetched £1,170 apiece, inside the range estimate. Their provenance is what Macdougall’s calls an “important private collection, Europe”.

Left to right: Alexander Yakovlev’s “Portrait of a young Bando woman” (1925); two of a series by Sacha Zaliouk (early 20th century).

Libido appears to have failed to clear these nudes at their asking prices.

Left to right: works by Oleg Tselkov; Olga Amusova-Bunak; Dmitry Toporkin; and Anatoly Brusilovsky. Reserve and estimated prices ranged from £1,000 to £40,000.