THE latest Russian art sales in the capital saw the continuing recovery of an important sector for London’s auctioneers. The market may lack the free spending seen before the downturn in October 2008 but the June sales were significantly up on the equivalent series last year.

The portrait of the influential editor and publisher Zinovii Grzhebin by Yuri Pavlovich Annenkov that made £1.55m at Sotheby’s Russian art sale on June 8.

The overall hammer total for the auctions last week, conducted by four firms, was close to £36m, a marked improvement on the £25m seen in 2009 but still down on the 2008 figure which was in excess of £46m.

While bidding battles emerged on prized works of art by Fabergé (click here for separate story), Russian pictures also posted solid performances with one or two standout prices. As is often the case in these sales, these tend to reflect the fierce competitions when private buyers are prepared to delve into their deep pockets to get what they want.

Sotheby's held their Russian evening sale on June 7 - a select offering of 26 paintings which raised a hammer total £8.9m against a presale estimate of £7.7m-11.3m. In all, 17 works sold.

The top lot was Alexander Evgenievich Yakovlev's (1887-1938) Titi and Naranghe, Daughters of Chief Eki Bondo which was knocked down at £2.2m to a Russian private buyer and made the highest price of the series.

One of the most famous images from the artists' African expeditions, it was consigned from a private French source having originally been owned by Georges Marie Haardt, director general of the car manufacturer Citroën. It was estimated at £700,000-900,000.

Another Russian private buyer bid £1.55m for a 1919 portrait of the editor and publisher Zinovii Grzhebin by Yuri Pavlovich Annenkov (1889-1974). Estimated at £800,000-1.2m, it had remained in the family of the sitter after it was painted.

The work was typical of the artist and stage designer's distinctive style, but it represented a rare opportunity to purchase a portrait of an eminent intellectual figure by a leading artist at the centre of the country's avant-garde. Crucially, it was painted before both men went into exile in Paris in the early 1920s.

The price was the second highest seen at auction for the artist.

Sotheby's day sale of Russian paintings (£5.3m) and a separately catalogued works of art sale (£4.4m), both offered on June 9, raised a further £9.7m to the bottom line.

Christie's main Russian sale on June 8 took £9.9m against a presale estimate of £7.2m-10.4m with 207 of the 273 lots finding buyers. This sale included a 221-lot works of art section (click here for separate story).

Here, works by three artists were taken to auction records including the top lot - Vasya by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin (1878-1939) which sold for £1.6m against a pre-sale estimate of £250,000-350,000. Having not been seen in public since 1932, it sold to an anonymous telephone bidder.

Also generating a heated bidding contest was the still life Roses and Apples by Konstantin Korovin (1861-1939) that was knocked down at £800,000 against an estimate of £100,000-150,000. In this case, it made the third highest price seen for the artist at auction.

MacDougall's Russian Classic and Contemporary Art sale on June 10 generated a hammer total of £5.95m and was the most lucrative of their three sales of the week. The top lot was Arsenal Hill at Night by Niko Pirosmani (1863-1918) which was knocked down at a low estimate £900,000.

The Russian art specialists also staged a £710,100 icons sale on June 7 and a works on paper sale on June 10 which was still underway as ATG went to press.

Meanwhile, Bonhams held their Russian sale on June 7. It made a hammer total of £1.57m with 126 of the 258 lots sold.

By Alex Capon