Russian Art Market to Return to the Health

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By Marina Romanova

lott48-1This summer London’s Russian art sales at four London auction houses – Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Bonhams and MacDougall’s – were the lowest in over a decade in records dating to 2007 at £16.4 million (around US$21.5m), falling short of their £17.7 million (US$23.2m) target, according to the UK and international press.

In 2015 Russian art sales brought a combined £21.1 million (US$27.69m) – barely over half the £40.7 million (US$53.41m) taken at the previous Russian Week in November 2014, and just one-third of the £64.3 million (US$84.38m) generated by the corresponding week in June 2014, according to Russian Art & Culture.

One of that “unmistakable signs of strength” in Russian Art market is an increase in the number of galleries, art fairs, and institutions in the past two decades worldwide and in London in particular, which suggest the growth of international recognition of Russian artists.

At the same time The Telegraph is writing about “unmistakable signs of strength” in Russian Art market, while the Russian Art & Culture were quoted William MacDougall, co-director and co-founder of MacDougall auction house specialize solely in Russian Art, saying that “Russian art market is returning to the health after a difficult period”.

Although, there were average poor performances at MacDougall’s with less than half the lots were sold, one of MacDougall’s more successful lots was a 1933 painting of the ruins of Palmyra by Russian modernist painter Alexander Yakovlev. Estimated at £110,000 (US$132,550), it was sold for £462,000 (US$606,310), while eleven years ago in 2005 it was sold for just £45,000 (US$59,055).

MacDougall’s auction house, as The Telegraph puts it, believes in “the newer markets for socialist realism and non-conformism, and more valuable six figure works by Konstantin Korovin, Vasily Polenov and Yury Pimenov, which have been on the market in the last 10 years, return with significantly higher estimates.” While the previous crisis of 2009 was based on objective economic factors, the Russian market now “is not flat. It is just suffering from negative psychology which affects confidence”, the paper were quoted Catherine MacDougall, co-director and co-founder of London’s MacDougall auction house, as saying.

Economic sanctions, the sharp fall in the value of the ruble over the past two years, and a general ‘feel bad’ factor amongst wealthy Russians all contributed to the weak Russian Weeks of auctions in London for many years.

analyticsRussianArtReportAt the same time, Russian art market, which is according to the last year Artnet analytics report comprised of about 2.5 percent of the US$16.1 billion global art market total for 2014, not the only one to go-slow. After five years of growth Christie’s reported a 5 percent decline in Global sales in 2015 to US$7.4 billion and Sotheby’s posted a 2015 fourth quarter loss of US$12 – 19 million, Russian art Dealer reports. If the pattern continues, the website speculates, it would mean that “in 2016 or 2017 we should see a sizable move downwards in the world economy that will further depress that art market.”

Even though, there have been healthy growths periods in a recent past that mirror broader economic trends, for instance, the period between 2004 and 2008 brought significant increase in sales of Russian art at auctions worldwide. According to, total Russian fine art auction sales were more than US$600 million in both 2007 and 2008—a gain of 730 percent from 2003 totals. There also have been signs of recovery in recent years, with sales of Russian art rising back above US$400 million in 2013.

In 2007 and 2008, Sotheby’s organized two auctions dedicated to contemporary Russian art. They both resulted in record prices for the works of nonconformists, when Oleg Vassiliev’s “Before the Sunset” was sold for the record US$927,000, Evgeny Chubarov’s “Untitled” was sold for US$568,000, and Erik Bulatov piece “Revolution-Perestroika” went for US$390,000, the Art Territory article read. Furthermore, the most famous piece by Erik Bulatov “Entrance-No Entrance” was sold for US$1,085,600 even during economy slowdown in 2010 by Phillips in London, passing the one-million-dollar benchmark for any nonconformist artists at then BRIC sale.

Contemporary unofficial Soviet art, or nonconformism, or underground art is an alternative art movement that came onto the Soviet art backstage in the 1950s, and remained there until the collapse of the USSR. Interestingly works of Soviet non-conformists are much more collectable by Western art lovers’ than in Russia. As the Art Territory article about Russian contemporary reads, by the 1980s, many foreigners who visited Moscow or St Petersburg would buy the work of almost anybody who belonged to the nonconformist movement. While Russian customers even today prefer to focus more on traditional Russian art along with works from the 18th through 20th-centuries or contemporary Western art.

heritage-004The record high price for a work at an auction of Russian art was paid for the piece of Konstantin Somov, Russian Symbolist painter, who was born in 1869 in St Petersburg and died at the edge of the Second World War in Paris in 1939. On June 14, 2007, Somov’s painting ‘Landscape with Rainbow’ (1927) was sold at Christie’s auction house for US$7.33 million, and seven times its high estimate.

However, the broader Russian art auction statistics from 1985–2015, places world celebrated painter Marc Chagall, early modernist, cubist and impressionist, to the top-selling Russian painter position with total sales of US$1.4 billion at auction. This is nearly twice the level of sales for the next highest selling artist on the list, Wassily Kandinsky, whose works have pulled in a total of US$547 million at auction in the same 30-year time span, the Artnet writes. Lately, his piece Strandszene (1909) sold for US$17.2 million at Christie’s New York in May 2014.

Among top selling individual lots are Russian geometric abstraction pioneer Kazimir Malevich’s ‘Suprematist Composition’ (1916), the most expensive work ever sold by a Russian artist. It brought more than US$60 million at Sotheby’s in 2008, at the height of the art market.

The very first Sotheby’s organized auction of Russian avant-garde and nonconformist works were held in 1988 at the International Trade Centre in Moscow. At the beginning there were mild hopes the auction would bring in up to US$900,000, but the event brought in a total of US$3.4 million with six works by Grisha Bruskin alone to be sold for US$865,000, a result that hardly anyone could have anticipated.
The next Russian Art auction is scheduled for November, 30th 2016 and will take place in MacDougall auction house in London. According to the MacDougall website, the house is looking for works by Geli Korzhev, Alexander Deineka, Yuri Pimenov, Alexander Gerasimov in particular, and other exemplary works of the Soviet masters.