ALTHOUGH this summer’s Russian art auctions in London failed to bring the gold rush of previous years, there was some relief in the salerooms that demand did not sink even further.
While the wealthy buyers who have pushed up the market for the last five years were noticeably cautious about dipping into their deep pockets, the events last week were not without highlights and there was some hope aired that the market may have now bottomed out.
Either way, the formerly bumper auction totals were significantly depleted. The combined figure for the series stood at £25.4m hammer, well down on last summer's figure of more than £46m.
However, with better news coming out of Russia over the last few months - the economy being helped by the recovery of both the price of oil and the value of the rouble, as well as the government's restructuring of the $500bn of foreign debt owed by rich Russian businessmen - the auctioneers were able to point to some signs of returning confidence.
Pictures still accounted for the bulk of the money changing hands, but while a mixed response was seen for the more standard paintings, a number of the top consignments drew keen interest and set new record prices.
This was the case with the top lot of the series - Boris Kustodiev's (1878-1927) oil on canvas The Village Fair, which sold for £2.5m to an anonymous buyer at Sotheby's (25/20/12% buyer's premium) June 8 evening sale.
A record £800,000 was also paid at the same event for the recently rediscovered Isaak Izrailevich Brodsky's (1884-1939) Nanny with Children, which saw four parties competing for more than five minutes until it was finally knocked down to an anonymous telephone bidder.
Offering just 27 lots of which 17 sold, Sotheby's evening sale raised £6.73m hammer - just shy of the auction's presale low estimate.
With a further £3.41m from their Russian paintings day sale and £3.97m from Russian works of art and icons the following day, as well as £726,400 from their Russian contemporary art sale on June 10, Sotheby's made £14.8m in total against a combined pre-sale estimate of £15m-22m.
Outside the pictures, demand for the most glitzy works of art remained consistently strong. An impressive pair of 4ft 10in (1,49m) high ormolu and gilded porcelain vases produced by the Imperial Porcelain Factory sold to a European dealer for £2.3m at Sotheby's works of art sale.
Painted with reproductions of old masters by Philips Wouvermans, signed Stoletov and M. Kornilov, and dated 1848, they belonged to Grand Duke Vladimir Kirillovich (1917-1992), a great-grandson of Emperor Alexander II.
Offered for sale by a descendant, they were estimated at £1.2-1.8m.
Christie's (25/20/12% buyer's premium) saw a hammer total of £3.32m for their main Russian sale in King Street on June 9. Offering both pictures and works of art, 131 of the 198 lots sold, including A Finnish Village, Roofs by Vasilii Shukhaev (1887-1973), which went to a private buyer for £580,000 and was the highest price of the sale.
Christie's also saw a bidding battle for a Fabergé cloisonné and enamelled silver-gilt box marked with the Imperial warrant, Moscow 1908-1917, estimated at £50,000-70,000. It sold to a US dealer for £135,000.
Christie's South Kensington sale on June 11, made another £307,950.
Specialist Russian art auctioneers MacDougall's (25/20/12% buyer's premium) took £5.7m hammer for their 281-lot sale on June 11. Against a presale low estimate of £6.5m, this allowed them to claim to be "the second largest auction house for Russian Art".
All the major lots got away, including Ilya Repin's (1844-1930) Portrait of Madame Alisa Rivoir with a Lapdog, which made a record £1.2m, beating the previous high of £350,000 seen at Christie's back in November 2006. Petrov Vodkin's (1878-1939) Maternity went below estimate at £900,000, but that was still five times the previous high for the artist. Both paintings were bought by Ukrainian collector Alina Aivazova.
Director William MacDougall said: "Though it has not yet reached its peak of a year ago, the market is in recovery from its winter blues, and some better works are even surpassing their pre-crisis peaks."
MacDougall's raised a further £403,000 from their first sale of Icons of the Orthodox World on June 8.
Bonhams' (20/12% buyer's premium) Russian sale on June 8 made £880,700 hammer.
By Alex Capon