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by John Helmer, Moscow

If the price of crude oil is stable or rising, the money spent on Russian art works at the semi-annual sales of the London art auction houses usually follows suit.

In June, when the last Russian Art Week was held, the price of oil was experiencing a seesaw between $71 and $63 per barrel.  Last week the oil price was moving up from $59 to $65. Allowing a lag in the time art buyers need to count the cash flowing into their bank accounts, the latest round of bidding should have come close to the June result. The actual outcome is that last week’s grand total came to £35.36 million; this compares to £35.93 million in June, and to £35.02 million in November of 2018.

US sanctions don’t have a direct impact because the biggest Russian art buyers in the London market aren’t the individuals targeted by the US Treasury. Instead, some are grand larcenists who launder the money they have stolen from their Russian banks and businesses, and who have been given safe haven to decorate their walls, girlfriends, and gardens by the British Government.  Click to follow their story.  

The domestic Russian art market is also showing resistance to Russia hating abroad. The latest measurement, based on reporting from Russian art dealers, shows the indexes for paintings and graphics bottomed out last year, and have been slowly improving this year.   

Diversification of genres for sale is also drawing fresh demand because of the low base effect — the prices are starting in the bargain basement. William MacDougall, co-director of the third-ranked London house, observes: “Our contemporary Russian Art Auction (over $1.3 million) on Monday was the first specialist auction for that sector in a decade (June 2008 was also ours). Its success has raised hopes that that area of the market is finally reviving. In this auction round the middle was stronger than the top.  We have also been seeing stronger demand for Contemporary in the last two auctions, albeit from a low base, hence our specialist auction.”

There’s no accounting for taste, but for everything else there is. Start with what the oil price marker illustrates:


Source: https://www.macrotrends.net

Then consider the index of Russian share prices which is showing an even steadier gain upwards over the same period:


Source: https://tradingeconomics.com/

Simon Hewitt provides the bible for the Russian art market in London — stability is his assessment. “This November’s £35.4m is the 17th highest total (out of 25) since Russian Auction Week assumed its current form in 2007. The number of lots offered (1,254) was the highest since Summer 2014, but the percentage of lots sold (59%) was the lowest since Summer 2016. Sales were up 45% at Sotheby’s but down at the other firms…. In a market more of note for stability than dynamism, the stand-out feature was the combined market-share achieved by Sotheby’s/Christie’s: an imposing 84% (higher still if Christie’s £2.1m Books & Manuscripts sale is taken into account). The other newsworthy factor was a 126-lot sale devoted exclusively to Russian Contemporary at MacDougall’s. This brought just over £1m and was headlined by a 1992 Chuikov that swaggered to a quadruple-estimate £121,500.” 

For the illustrated MacDougall’s catalogue of Contemporary works (lots 1-200) and earlier works (lots 201-418), click to view.  The resulting prices paid are listed by lot number here


Source: https://www.russianartandculture.com For the Sotheby’s catalogue and results, click.   For Christie’s. For MacDougall’s.  And for Bonhams. 

For comparison of these results with those of the June round, read this.  The usual London house standards for sex (female fronts, boy behinds) and politics (scenes of Crimea) haven’t done as well as they have done in the past. Click to compare and this in 2015

Stability is one way of looking at Russian art valued as a commodity by Russian buyers: their  requirement is that what they outlay for should gain in value by a better rate than it costs them to borrow or to lend. This is the way the big spenders invested last week, according to Hewitt’s tabulation of the highest price-fetching canvases sold:  

Another way of judging this market is to measure those works which scored a much higher price than the market specialists in the auction houses expected, according to the price ranges published in the pre-sale catalogues. The top 10 at Sotheby’s, for example, are those achieving the largest multiple; that’s to say, their realized sale price over the top of the estimated price range:

Left to right: works by Grigoriev; Goncharova; Bogdanov; Serebriakova.

Comparing the chart of the big surprises with the big tickets indicates that the auction houses know the big spenders much better than they know the less well-heeled Russian haute bourgeoisie. To understand what the latter advertise about themselves, start here

There is also the cultural cringe factor, which James Butterwick, a well-known London specialist in Russian art,  uncovered when he asked his Russian colleagues to explain why his favourite piece failed to stretch by the margin  he was hoping for. This is a dull coloured abstract (right) by Ivan Kliun from the 1920s, which started its market journey in George Costakis’s Athens collection. “Firstly the star of lot of Russian Art Week, the Kliun fizzled and spluttered its way to £4.1 [million] hammer price when I had predicted more. I was asked why it failed to hit the heights and chose to bite my tongue. It’s an infinitely more important painting than Kuzma Petrov Vodkin that soared at Christies in June, it’s braver too and Kliun is second only to Malevich. Why? The only reason is the one given by Russian colleagues who shared my surprise – it’s not a realist painting and Russians have yet to achieve the level of sophistication in their buying habits as have Westerners.”

This is a mistake. Less so is the commentary in the Sotheby’s catalogue for the work: “By the late 1920s however abstraction had fallen out of favour with the Soviet authorities and by 1932 had all but been outlawed with the imposition of Socialist Realism as state policy. Unlike many other artists at the time, Kliun did not turn to figurative art but pursued his experiments in abstraction and purism out of public view.” 

In other words, Kliun’s work is big on a wall so specialized that the Soviets judged it not worth the state budget being paid to support it. A not dissimilar algorithm applies when the budget is commercial. The Kliun margin isn’t likely to beat 39% above the estimate of the Sotheby’s marketing specialist. The Russian calculation is that’s precisely as much as it can gain in the foreseeable future without state or institutional investment in museum shows,  coffee-table publications, and payola for the New York media. In Russia at war,  that’s out of the question; ditto in the US making war on Russia.  Sophistication, as Butterwick’s sources are reluctant to accept, is in beating the margin, not losing it. Russians who say the West is more sophisticated for snubbing realism are on the other side — the losing side.

NOTE:The lead image is from the Sotheby’s catalogue. A bronze sculpture by Leonid Sokov, titled “Lenin and Giacometti” and dated 1989, it fetched £32,500, a multiple of 2.2 over the estimated price of £15,000.

Confirming the recovery of art prices in the domestic market, here is the latest data chart by ArtInvestment.ru.


KEY: Grey=graphic works; blue=paintings; red=all works. Source: https://artinvestment.ru/

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