Art Deco bronze and ivory dancers inspired by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and other exotic themes have been racing up the price scale in recent months. The reason is rouble power.
These pieces have been discovered by Russian collectors and their determination to secure them, coupled with some deep pockets, have sent values soaring. It is not a phenomenon limited to any one country, either. The effect can be seen around the world as a recent slew of record prices illustrates.
"There is an undercurrent of Russian buying that has changed the playing field. It is not people who were buying in this market before," says Jeremy Morrison, Sotheby's head of decorative arts in London. "It's a totally different group who are buying in other fields".
He reckons the first major signs emerged in New York a couple of years ago and values have kept on rising.
In March the German auctioneers Nagel of Stuttgart offered a single-owner collection of 17 figures, the best of which were secured by a Russian buyer in the room whose purchases included the multi estimate €220,000 (£157,140) spent on the 183/4in (47.5cm) high Chiparus figure Almeria. But this price was eclipsed three weeks later on April 17 when Sotheby's offered a separately catalogued sale of just 12 lots of Chiparus models consigned by an American vendor to their New York rooms.
All sold and bullish estimates were more than matched on several occasions culminating in a $3.47m total and a new auction high for Chiparus of $800,000 (£400,000) for the five figure group Les Girls.
This month it was London that experienced soaring bronze and ivory prices to the material benefit of the auctioneers' Decorative Arts sale totals. A single-owner collection of 19 bronze and ivory figures at Sotheby's on May 2 drew the Russians out in force with further competition over the phone and plenty of multi-estimate prices led by £72,000 for a 17in (43cm) version of Claire Jeanne Colinet's most celebrated model, Ankara Dancer.
But even higher figures were reached two days later at Christie's. A larger 2ft 1in (63cm) high Ankara Dancer shown here realised £120,000 as did a 2ft 5in (79cm) version of Chiparus' Starfish Dancer while Russian Dancers, a 163/4in (42cm) Chiparus pair based on the Ballets Russes' performers Nijinksy and Ida Rubenstein, climbed to £90,000.
Russian interest may have initiated the price hike but the demand is broader based now. "There are other wealthy players who have identified that the market is moving", says Morrison. Christie's Ankara and Starfish Dancer, for example, were both carried off by a South American collector.
And just like the property market, as values for the most expensive sculptures get more expensive, buyers start appreciating the merits of the next rung down the ladder. There was evidence in London last week that the demand has moved to less exotic subjects by artists like Preiss and Philippe.
By Anne Crane