Strong Market

2010 was not a good year for most business, but it was a great year for Russian art. Sotheby’s alone sold $82 million. Christies sales – in all categories – shot up 53% in 2010. William MacDougall, of MacDougall Auctions told The Epoch Times, “Like most markets, Russian art suffered in the economic crisis, but it has been in recovery since April 2009. Over 90 percent of the buyers are based in Moscow and Kiev, where the economies are growing. Good works attract buyers, and new world records have been set since the crisis.”

Upcoming sales include Sotheby’s sale on April 21 and 22, and Christie’s sale on April 13 in New York.

Lazare Gallery’s Moscow River School exhibition is just wrapping up in Sarasota, FL. A new show of Vyacheslav Zabelin will be up from February 4 to March 11.


MacDougall’s Rise

Telegraph News has put out an interesting article about MacDougall’s auction house. Over the last six years they have become a force in the Russian art market, competing directly with the three major fine arts auction houses, Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Bonham’s. Here’s an excerpt:

“For more than 200 years Bonhams, Christie’s and Sotheby’s have dominated the auction world, and still rule the roost in fine art. Certainly, there are dozens of small auction houses around the globe that make a living by carving out a niche not lucrative enough to interest the big three.

MacDougall’s, however, is among the few that has gone head-to-head in a highly lucrative category with the market leaders. It has not only profited by the burgeoning Russian art market over the past six years, but it has also revolutionised it.”

Link to full article

Christie’s Auctions Popoff Collection

Levitan“A Snow Covered Village” – Issak Levitan 1888

On October 12 and 13 in New York Christie’s International auctioned $31 million worth of 18th and 19th century Russian paintings, porcelain, textiles, silver and gold. The 550 lots came from “Galerie Popoff,” a well-known Russian art gallery in Paris. The gallery was founded by Aleksandr Popoff, who according to an article by the Russian Times, “started his collection in Paris in the 1920s, buying porcelain and watercolors from Russian émigrés who went through hard times.” Sales totaled about $9 million. Typically, Christie’s holds all of its Fall auctions at once, near the end of November. The uniqueness of the Popoff collection, however, prompted them to auction it separately. Christie’s next sales of Russian art will be held in early December, in London.

Fall Russian Sales

Sale dates have been announced for Sotheby’s fall auctions. Because the major auction houses repeat the same sales each year near the same time – it’s possible to gauge changes in the Russian art market by comparing results year to year. Not only how much art is being sold, but also which artists and periods. We’ll follow developments as the sale dates approach.

Update 9/27:

Sotheby’s will hold their Russian Art Evening sale on November 30th, their Russian Paintings Sale on December first, and their Russian Art sale on November second.

Christie’s will hold their Russian Works of Art sale on December first, their Russian Pictures sale on December second and another sale of Russian Works of Art and Pictures together on December third.

Update 10/27

Art Daily has published an article on Sotheby’s upcoming Fall sales.

Art Fraud


A painting sold by Christie’s for $3 million as Boris Kustodiev’s Odalisque was recently identified as a fake. Odalisque, unfortunately, is just one of a large number of fakes infiltrating the Russian art market. James Butterwick, a Russian art dealer in London, told Bloomberg News, “Every month, I’m asked to look at 10 paintings, and nine are fakes. Many Russian collectors buy without asking competent experts. If a work is credible, then it has a provenance that can be easily checked out.” Thankfully, “The Catalog of Fraudulent Artworks,” a guide to 900 fakes, has been published by the Russian government. The fifth volume of the set, which contains 100 paintings, including Odalisque, was released last month.

For more information see Bloomberg’s recent article on the issue

April Auctions (follow-up)

Russian Art Week wrapped up in New York  last Friday very successfully. Christie’s sold 69% of it’s 390 lots for a total of $13.2 million, just over it’s high estimate of $13 million. The top lot at the auction, Svetoslav Roerich’s Portrait of Nicholas Roerich in a Tibetan Robe sold for $2,994,500 nearly three times its high estimate of $1.1 million. The sale broke the previous record for the artist, set earlier in the week at Sotheby’s sale. The success of the sale is in part the result of reformed expectations. After a disappointing turnout at November’s auction, Christie’s, “had to readjust,” said the head of Christie’s Russian department, Alexis de Tiesenhausen, “The estimates now are about 20 percent less than in November.”

Sotheby’s held their sale before Christie’s on Wednesday. About 65 % of their 308 lots sold for a total of $13.8 million, within their estimates for the auction. The top lot was Ivan Aivazovsky’s Columbus Sailing from Palos, which sold for $1,594,000 million, well over its high estimate of $1.1 million. Svetoslav Roerich’s Three Boddisatvas sold for $262,500, more than triple it’s estimate. In fact, all but one of the ten top lots exceeded their estimates.

Sotheby’s Sonya Bekkerman and Gerard Hill called the sale, “the first test of the season,” and expressed optimism about Sotheby’s performance: “If you consider these results alongside the more than $12 million we achieved for Russian works in last November’s Impressionist and Modern sales in New York, and the nearly $38 million brought in in London in December, it’s clear that the market for Russian art remains buoyant.”

April Auctions

columbus“Columbus Sailing from Palos” – Ivan Aivazovsky

Later this month Sotheby’s and Christie’s will be holding their Spring auctions of Russian art in New York. They have recently made catalogs for the shows available online.


Sotheby’s sale will take place on April 22nd at their office in New York. A pre-sale exhibition of the work to be sold is scheduled for April 17th. Featured artists include Ivan Aivazovsky, Alexandre Iacovleff, Ivan Pokhitonov, Vasili Polenov, Nicholas Roerich, and many others. The top lot is expected to be Aivazovsky’s Columbus Sailing from Palos, which has a pre-sale estimate of $1-1.5 million.


Christie’s sale will take place on April 24th at Rockefeller Plaza. The sale will feature many of the same artists up for auction at Sotheby’s, including Ivan Aivazovsky, Nicholas Roerich, and Ivan Pokhitonov, as well as the work of Sergei Gerasimov, Arkadii Plastov and many others. The top lot is expected to be Svetoslav Roerich’s Portrait of Nicholas Roerich in a Tibetan Robe, which has a pre-sale estimate of $900,000 to $1.1 million.

Link to Sotheby’s catalog.

Link to Christie’s catalog.

The Year at Christie’s

On February 15th Al-Bawaba news published an article on Christie’s performance this past year.

Christie’s CEO Edward Dolman seemed optimistic about the future of the art market in the slowing global economy, saying “Despite the economic turmoil in the second half of 2008, Christie’s completed the year with £2.8 billion in sales, continued profitability, and a record of offering great quality works to clients around the world. […] As we move into 2009, recent results and forthcoming consignments give good reason to remain positive about the global art market where demand remains strong for well-estimated, unique and sought after works of art.”

Sales of Russian art dropped 55% in 2008, but the report had largely positive things to say about the future of Russian art at Christie’s. Here’s an excerpt:

“The Russian category continued to grow in importance, albeit at a slower rate against the weakening global economy. For the year the Russian Art sales series totalled GBP32.4 million/$59.0 million.

Christie’s continued commitment to Russia and the CIS states was signaled by superb exhibitions in Moscow and St. Petersburg during the year. Christie’s June Russian Art sale totaled GBP11.3 million/$22 million and a new world record price for a work by a female artist, and a record price for an artist at auction was established in the June Impressionist and Modern Sale when Natalia Goncharova’s Les Fleurs sold for GBP5.5 million/$10.9 million. Christie’s Russian Art Week in November realised GBP13.7 million/$20.9 million.”

November Auction Results

The results have come in on this November’s Russian art auctions in London.

MacDougall’s finished their auctions first, and saw 60% of lots go unsold. The sale made a total of $7.68 million, falling short of a presale estimate of nearly $18 million. Antiques Trade Gazette reported that, “in terms of picture sales only MacDougall’s, with a premium-inclusive total of £8.1m, just outsold Christie’s for the second time running.” Overall, however, Christies fared slightly better, selling %55 of their lots. The sale made $16.2 million, well below the low estimate of $28 million. Natalia Goncharova’s Still Life with Watermelons was the top lot, selling for $2.3 million . Even extremely hip painters like Goncharova, however, are not immune to the slowing of the market. Another of her paintings at the sale, Abstract Composition with Palate, did not sell.

Sotheby’s Russian Art Evening sale was fairly successful. Jo Vickery, the head of Sotheby’s Russian department gave a summary of the results: “Given the current state of the economic climate, we are very pleased with the total achieved for this evening’s auction which fell just short of its low estimate of £17 million. Eight new artist records were established and 30% of the buyers in the sale were not only new to Sotheby’s but also came from the CIS, which is extremely encouraging and demonstrates that there continues to be an active market for Russian Art. Works by Roerich performed particularly well and high quality paintings by the blue-chip 19th- and early 20th-century Russian artists, such as Konchalovsky, Polenov and Larionov continue to be in demand.”

Alexander Tabalov, a collector from Kiev told Bloomberg News, “The poor results […] were due to very high estimates and the fact that the market is waiting. Some potential buyers are waiting for prices to go down.” Ivan Samarine, a dealer from London told The Daily Telegraph that while high quality works sold well for the most part, results were difficult to predict because, “a lot of potential buyers were waiting to see where prices would settle, and not bidding.” It is clear: buyers are waiting. While some groups, like Hiscox, fear prices will continue to slide, there seems to be a general consensus among auction houses, collectors and dealers that the large numbers of unsold works seen at recent sales do not suggest a lack of ability or will to buy. Unsold paintings are the natural consequence of uncertainty. The auction houses are uncertain of where to place their estimates, and buyers aren’t sure how to buy in this new economic climate. As estimates become more realistic for the current market, and prices become more consistent, buyers will get their bearings and sales may pick back up again quickly. As The Daily Telegraph explained it, the market for Russian art has fallen, but back to earth, not off the deep end; “By the end, London’s Russian art sales had brought £52.8million [$78.4 million], just over half the amount realised a year ago, and back to the more realistic levels of 2006.”

The Market for Fine Art Investing

An article published in Russia Today on November 3rd states, “The turmoil on world markets, from shares to foreign exchange, raises the question of hedging risks and finding new investment opportunities. Paintings, coins and other kinds of art are an increasingly attractive option.”

In an article by the Associated Press published on November 5, Ian Peck, the CEO of the Art Capital Group is quoted as saying, “Last night firmly demonstrated the concept of a recession in the art market is not abstract but real.”

What is the state of the art market? How can we expect it to behave in the coming months? The media is putting forth a lot of conflicting information. Looking at the numbers and at statements from the big auction houses, however, it’s possible to get a better idea of what is to come.

At Sotheby’s recent auction of Impressionist and Modern Art on November 3, Degas’ “Dancer in Repose” fell short of its $40 million estimate. At first glance, this seems to fit into the idea of an art market recession. “Dancer in Repose,” however, sold for over $37 million, an all-time high for Degas, and at the same auction a record was set for Munch. Overall the sale fell short of its estimate, and yet, it made a total of $223.8 million. This sale, which, “demonstrated the concept of a recession in the art market,” was the fifth-highest grossing Impressionist and Modern sale in Sotheby’s history.

If the market is in a recession, it’s not exactly frightening. The market has seen similar slow periods in the past and recovered. Russia Today’s article on art investment quoted the Chairman of Christie’s, Brett Gorvy, giving his take on the “recession” :

“People do see art as a tangible asset – something which they can put their money in, in bad times. After September 2001 the art market also was hit by a lack of confidence, but also a little concern as to where it was going. It came back almost immediately and became even stronger.”

The art market has remained remarkably stable during the economic crises of the past. Why shouldn’t it now? There is simply less chance involved in the art market. Though on some level it’s debatable whether or not art loses its inherent value, in a literal sense art does not suddenly go bankrupt. The value of art is more lasting than the value of other commodities, and in a time when our faith in the economy is shaken, it makes perfect sense that we invest in art, which cannot outlive its essential importance to the world.

P.S. (Editor’s Note): As Brett Gorvy said, (above) the art market slows not just due to a lack of confidence in the stability of the market, but because of concerns about the “direction” of the market. What concerns me about the direction of the art market, what I believe is its great weakness, is the inflated prices of a number of contemporary painters’ work. Just yesterday, a triptych of Francis Bacon self portraits failed to sell at a Sotheby’s auction.

“Bacon’s 1964 “Study for Self Portrait” — billed as a highlight of Christie’s contemporary art auction — was estimated to take in some 40 million dollars.

But when the bidding stopped at 27.4 million the esteemed auction house halted the proceedings, to a chorus of gasps.” – AFP

This past February, a different Francis Bacon triptych sold for 51.7 million dollars, the record for any post-war painting ever sold in Europe. Perhaps this recession will spark a re-evaluation of work whose monetary value no longer corresponds to buyers’ perceptions of its artistic and historical value.