The art market may be struggling in Moscow, but in London last week, the Russian art auctions accumulated £38 million, a 132 per cent improvement on this time last year. Some of the best results were paid by Russians for turn-of-the century works from western collections.
A 1908 portrait of an exotically attired young Russian woman by Nicolai Fechin, who subsequently emigrated to America, made the top price, selling for double the estimate at £3.6 million. Fechin has only recently been placed in Russian as opposed to American art sales, and prices are going up – something which the San Diego Museum of Art clearly realised when they decided to sell the painting in a Russian art sale.
Two 1920 Cezanne-esque landscapes by Vasily Rozhdestvensky, whose work is mostly in museums, had come from a European collection and also doubled estimates, one selling for a record £585,000. And a 1909 cubist-inspired still life by Natalia Goncharova, which came from a French collection, tripled estimates to sell for £2.4 million.
Sotheby’s, meanwhile, staged a special Soviet sale to celebrate the centenary of the Russian revolution. The 1920s posters glamorising the march of the proletariat and technological advance all sold well - a 1923 advertisement for the State Airline Dobrolet, by Rodchenko, sold over the internet for a record £45,000.
There was also a strong market for Soviet porcelain made at the State Porcelain Factory in Leningrad. A large 1927 plate, inscribed ‘Workers of the World Unite’ raced past its £20,000 estimate to sell for £162,500. The buyer, collector Alex Lachmann, said the estimate was low because Sotheby’s did not realise that, whereas most Soviet porcelain was made in quantities, this was probably the only example of that particular design in existence.
The later socialist realism material – a mix of Stalinist-approved figurative art and pastiche Impressionism glorifying labour and life under a communist regime - fell flat, however. Half the lots went unsold.
These included the star lot, a monumental portrait of a miner by Alexander Deineka, Russia’s highest rated socialist realist artist, which had an estimate of £3.5 million. But it was an early work, made in 1925 when he was under the influence of German Expressionism.
Deineka’s mature work, by contrast, is valuable: included in Tate Modern’s ‘Red Star Over Russia’ show are three mural-scale paintings made for the Russian Pavilion at the 1937 International Exposition in Paris to promote working life under Stalin, which are thought to be worth around £20 million each. A similar, but much smaller painting by Deineka appeared at MacDougall’s auctions last week and sold for a record £2.85 million.
But demand for Russian socialist realist art in general is limited to just a few artists and cannot support large specialised auctions. For Sotheby’s, this was a one-off, and unlikely to be repeated in a hurry.
Other art market news
Bonhams staged its Modern and Contemporary Middle Eastern Art sale a fortnight after Sotheby’s and Christie’s to fit in with a charity sale and gala they were holding on behalf of the Anglo Jordanian Society last week. Fittingly, its two top lots were portraits of King Hussein and Princess Alia of Jordan painted in 1973 and 1982 respectively by the Turkish-born Fahr El-Nissa Zeid, who has been enjoying a zestful retrospective exhibition at Tate Modern.
In spite of mistakenly displaying the back of the canvas on the video screen throughout the bidding, Bonhams sold the Princess for £234,350, almost double the £121,250 paid for the King. Both prices were well above estimates and the former set a new record for a portrait by Zeid, whose large jazzy abstracts sell for more.
Much curiosity surrounded the identity of the buyer, who bought a quantity of works at the sale contributing around 40 per cent of the £1.4 million total. Gossip from the Gulf believes it was a member of the extensive, ruling Al Thani family in Doha buying for himself rather than for one of the museums in Qatar.
London Art Week, a dealer initiative timed to coincide with this week’s Old Master sales, has got off to a good start after a collector of Ottoman ceramics bought all ten examples of Iznik pottery on show at the Oliver Forge & Brendan Lynch consultancy showroom in St James’s for close to £1 million.
Dating from the late 16th century, when polychrome was introduced, the pieces had been acquired during the early 20th century by civil servant Sir Alan Barlow, and came directly from his family. It was a coup for Forge & Lynch to snatch these works from under the noses of the auction houses which have sold other parts of the Barlow collection successfully.