This weekend marks the start of Russian art week in London. Despite the double-dip recession in the UK the Russian market has remained buoyant. Most of the major auction houses are hosting sales of Russian paintings, icons, Fabergé and works of art. The art market is collector driven and wealthy Russians have ensured that sales have remained high.
London has become an important site for Russian sales. Nearly two thirds of the art market is being bought and sold in the British capital. Reasons for this include the traditional clustering of similar auctions in a city and the large number of wealthy Russians based here. The other reason for London's dominance of the market is that works sold in Russia cannot be sold outside of the country.
I interviewed the respective heads of Russian art at Christie's, Sotheby's and MacDougall's who were all unanimous in their belief that Russian art was defying the recession. Director William MacDougall suggested that the reason for this was that investing in art was seen as a better option that the stock market. He says, "Art is being seen as a good alternative investment given the current Eurozone crisis". He also pointed out that Russia was not in recession and that Russian sales have been growing rapidly over in recent years. In 2011 MacDougall's made £24million in just two days of sales.
The MacDougall's sale includes a number of important Russian avant-garde works such as an Alexandra Exter's Cubo-Futurist Still-Life collage from 1912 (Lot 120) and three pictures by the leading Expressionist painter Alexei von Jawlensky (Lots 5-7). Another unusual painting is New Moon by Isaak Brodsky (Lot 1) which is from the collection of the artist's son. Icons are also well represented with an image of The Guardian Angel (Lot 422) from the Chirikov Brothers Workshop which was presented to the Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna. A pair of Art Nouveau wedding icons in silver-gilt oklads also feature in the sale (Lot 427).
Christie's is offering as their cover lot Spanish Landscape by Petr Konchalovsky (Lot 38) which is from the family of the artist. This important painting was exhibited with the Jack of Diamonds group in Moscow in 1911. Another significant work on view is Leon Bakst's The Yellow Sultana (Lot 42) which is an excellent example of the artist's designs for the Ballets Russes. The top lot is Reclining Nude by Zinaida Serebriakova (Lot 78) who was one of the most talented artists of her generation.
An important selection of Soviet works from Eric Estorick's Grosvenor Gallery is being offered at Christie's by the artist Ernst Neizvestny (Lots 90-93). Another striking and unusual work is a painted icon surrounded by precious stones. Peter Boyarshinov's work (Lot 279) depicting Moses Striking the Rock features cut-out figures and hardstones such as amethyst and quartz incorporated into the work. This is a rare example of an imaginative icon which combines painted metalwork with minerals. Aside from pictures the auction house is also offering a beautiful jewelled gold and enamel Imperial snuff box which carries the cipher of Emperor Nicholas II (Lot 218).
Sarah Mansfield, Head of the Russian Department at Christie's, was positive about her expectations for the sales. She stressed that buyers wanted top quality works with a good provenance which is what the auction house offered. Interestingly Christie's are also including a work by John Cooke Bourne who is not a Russian artist. The painting of The Kremlin, Moscow (Lot 11) is expected to do well at a sale which attracts so many Russian buyers.
Sotheby's recently closed down their New York office to focus on their European and Russian presence. However, they are the only auction house to have a major presence in Moscow employing five members of staff. The highlight of their sale is undoubtedly the series of ceramics by Mikhail Vrubel (Lots 15-19). These rare sculptures were produced in the 1890s at the Abramtsevo workshop at Savva Mamontov's country estate. Vrubel worked with the chemist Petr Vaulin to develop new maiolica techniques and creates luminous metallic glazes. This is an important and rare group of the artist's decorative ceramics to be offered for sale.
Nineteenth century art is also well represented at Sotheby's. Two major works by Vasily Vereshchagin are presented. The Spy (Lot 9) forms part of the artist's important Balkan series which documented his impressions of the Russo-Turkish war. This impressive canvas was included in Vereshchagin's 1888 American sale and has remained in private hands since 1891. The rediscovery of this work is a major addition to scholarship on the artist.
Jo Vickery, Head of Russian Art at Sotheby's, says "In 2010-2011 our Russian sales grew by 16%. Our sales are growing but the percentage of lots we offered has decreased so we can conclude from that collectors are spending more on buying less. Demand is high particularly for classic Russian names." She has recently published a book Frozen Dreams on contemporary Russian art.
The artistic couple Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova are also presented at the sale. Larionov's The Bathers (Lot 20) is being sold to benefit the International Institute for the Study of Futurism in Milan. This painting was given to the Italian Futurist poet Carlo Belloli by the artist and importantly bears the handwritten labels in Cyrillic for the Moscow Storage Facility for Contemporary Art. This early masterpiece has been in a private collection for over fifty years and is a significant work which shows Larionov's artistic experiments which culminated with Rayonism. Goncharova is represented with a Still Life of Bluebells (Lot 21). Other works include a Fabergé silver-gilt and enamel frame by the Anders Nevalaine (Lot 422).
Finally Bonhams are offering two paintings (Lots 69-70) by the Russian artist Zinaida Serebriakova which were once considered destroyed in World War Two. The two nude, allegorical figures are entitled Jurisprudence and Flora. Sophie Hamilton, Head of the Russian Art Department, commented, "We are honoured to be able to offer two rare and unusual works by the eminent artist Serebriakova. The fact that the paintings lay undiscovered for so many years and have only been seen once in public before, at The State Russian Museum in St Petersburg, has meant we have already received much interest from collectors and scholars of Serebriakova."
This week also saw the launch of a new website catering for the market Russian Art and Culture which provides a central hub for information on Russian art and culture including exhibitions, sales and talks alongside a global calendar of events and jobs' directory.