By John Helmer, Moscow
If the flock of smart tarts speaking Russian into their smartphones along King and New Bond Streets in London last week were a sign, nothing much has changed in the Russian art market. Christie’s and Sotheby’s, the art auctioneers, would be the last people to say if or when the bottom has fallen out of an art market. But the results of the major Russian art auctions in London in the last week of November indicate the top of the market has fallen in.
Non-Russians (mostly Europeans) continue to dominate the sellers, while Russians remain the big majority of buyers. But this time the former overstepped the price which the latter will agree to pay. Wishful European expectation for price has met sober Russian asset stocktaking. This in turn means that Russian art buyers are no longer anticipating the rapid growth of value in Russian art assets recorded in the summer auctions.
Frances Asquith, head of Russian art at Sotheby’s, admits that 30% of the paintings offered at the November 24 auction was sold; just 50% at all three of the Sotheby’s auctions in which Russian art, paintings, jewellery and other objects were on offer through November 25. “Though the Russian auction results were uneven across London last week, the salerooms were packed and with over 50% sold by lot and value, Sotheby’s sales of Russian Pictures were the most robust overall. With 18 pictures selling for over £100,000 at Sotheby’s, there is clearly still depth in the market.”
Sotheby’s proceeds  totaled £9.7 million. Boris Kustodiev’s Bakhchisarai (below, left), sold at £1.3 million, at the low end of the pre-sale target; and Zinaida Serebriakova’s Reclining Nude fetched £698,500, also at the low end. Together, they amounted to 40% of the auction total.
Christie’s declared a record  for takings in the Russian category after its November 24 sale. Sarah Mansfield, head of the Russian art department at Christie’s, emphasized the firmness of Russian buyer demand, if not confidence in price. “The success of the sale shows that Russian art is still in a high demand and that Russian buying activity is at an even higher level than last November, when the auction totaled £16.5 million.” A London observer cautioned: “there were two great works which were over half their sale, especially the Serov. Two big lumps distort the statistics.”
Christie’s reports a total take of £20.2 million. Valentin Serov’s Portrait of Maria Zetlin (below left) sold for £9.2 million, and Portrait of Aleksandr Tikhonov by Yuri Annenkov (right) sold for £4 million. Their pre-sale estimates were £2.5 million and £4.5 million, respectively. The Serov was sold from an Israeli collection; the Annenkov from “an important European collector”. The Annenkov has been traded three times in the past 30 years. Along with four works by Boris Grigoriev, which fetched £564,750, the top priced works amounted to 68% of Christie’s aggregate.
The small print in the Christie’s announcement reveals that of 421 lots offered, 240 were sold – 57%.
Bonhams has set a record sale price for a single work of Russian art, when Nikolai Roerich’s, Madonna Laboris, went for £7.9 million. But that was in June 2013, and it has been bested by the Serov at Christie’s last week. Bonham’s November 26 auction of Russian art drew much lower price offers. The top sale was Alexander Yakovlev’s Loge de Theatre a Pekin (below), for £302,500. Of 180 lots Bonham managed to clear 77, or 43%.
Until last week’s auctions, this is how the top-10 sale record stood for Russian works of art:
Source: http://www.russianartandculture.com 
According to William MacDougall, whose gallery in Moscow and London specializes in Russian art, “a lot of Russians have money, and were in the auction room, but they were being cautious.” MacDougall’s best – priced sale  was Roerich’s And We Continue Fishing (below left) for £1.2 million, but The Doomed City (right) by Roerich failed to find a buyer at the £1.2 million reserve. Demand for Roerich has been a bellwether of Russian market demand in the past.
“Last June saw one of the strongest Russian Weeks ever,” MacDougall said. “In spite of the well known political and economic difficulties, specialist Russian sales were exceptionally vibrant, and the strongest since the 2008 financial crisis. Wealthy Russians still have money, and have to spend it or invest it somewhere, with art being an clear choice.”
This time round MacDougall’s total proceeds  came to £7.8 million. Thirty-four percent of the lots on offer were sold.
Although prices appear to be peaking, there is no evidence from last week’s sales that Russian sellers are being forced into selling their art collections in order to meet bank margin calls on the loans which have financed their assets. MacDougall says he has not observed a change in the ratio of non-Russians to Russians among the sellers, and no forced selling, at least among Russians. “There was a higher proportion of non-Russians among the sellers, especially Germans, though they might have been buying for Russians. Uncertainty stopped them, not prices. Many came intending to buy but held back at the last minute.”
“People are often forced sellers of equities and bonds due to margin calls,” MacDougall adds, “but much less so with paintings, which are usually bought with free cash, not with borrowed money. In fact, we have not come across any forced sellers recently. If anything, we have the opposite problem — of sellers being too greedy, and estimates consequently being set too high; remember that the reserve price must be no higher than the low estimate.”
An analysis  of the Russian art market by Simon Hewitt, released last week, calculates that over the past seven years, the average selling rate for Russian art has been 53%. While the latest results are clearly worse than average, they are not as bad in Hewitt’s calculation as the period after the onset of the Autumn 2008 recession.
In November, Tatiana Markina, the art correspondent for The Art Newspaper  of Moscow and Kommersant, reported a “sour mood” from the London salerooms as agents for Russian buyers expressed frustration at the asking prices, and uncertainty at what the resale trade will bear when they get home. “The first signs of instability in the Russian market,” observes Makarina, “were visible even in the summer London auctions. In October, the Russian Antoque Salon was small. The sellers of Russian art are accustomed to high prices for Russian art and don’t want to cut them.”
According to Markina, a “promising trend” in market demand for Socialist Realism in Russian painting faded a little in last week’s auctions, “but it’s not dead.”
MacDougall believes “there was stronger interest in both Socialist Realism and Non-Conformist Art. He sold Petr Konchalovsky’s Still Life with Lilacs, Blue Cup and Book of 1949 (below, left) for £493,200, but the same painter’s White Night, Walking in the Park, Murmansk (1936) failed to sell within its £450,000-£700,000 range.
Hewitt reports that for the past seven years, “the highest prices for Russian Art are achieved by late 19th and early 20th century artists. The late 19th century artists, led by Ayvazovsky and Shishkin, are primarily of interest to Russian buyers, or to collectors with a strong affinity to Russian culture. The same applies to early 20th century Russian Figurative artists, such as Kustodiev. Works by the Russian Avant-Garde, however, are among the most sought-after on the international market. Whereas the Global Auction Market is driven by Post-War & Contemporary Art, the Russian auction market in this sector is almost negligible. Only a handful of living Russian artists, led by Ilya Kabakov and Erik Bulatov, ever appear in international sales of Contemporary Art.”