THE latest round of Russian art sales in London put in a consistent performance as auctioneers’ totals again benefited from a series of £1m-plus prices. Demand, however, remained selective with selling rates noticeably patchy.
The overall hammer total for the auctions last week, conducted by four firms, was £39.1m, marginally up on the £36m seen for the equivalent series last year and the December sales which came in at £36.9m.
Although the market has yet to recover to the peak levels seen in June 2008, when the Russian series made more than £46m, outstanding prices are still emerging for the top lots.
Christie's (25/20/12% buyer's premium) achieved their highest ever price for a work in a specialist Russian sale when £4m was bid on June 6 for Ilya Repin's (1844-1930) painting A Parisian Café.
It more than doubled the previous high for the artist, selling on the phone against a room bidder, and overscored the £3.3m for Konstantin Somov's The Rainbow at Christie's in June 2007 - their previous record in a Russian sale.
Although MacDougall's hold the highest price for a work in a Russian sale (Nikolai Fechin's The Little Cowboy made £5.8m last December), the record for a Russian picture overall is held by Kasimir Malevich's 1916 Suprematist Composition, which took $53.5m (£32.7m) at Sotheby's New York in November 2008. The artist is considered a Russian artist but of Ukrainian birth.
A Parisian Café was a 4ft x 6ft 4in (1.21 x 1.91m) oil on canvas from 1875 which showed the influence of Western art on Repin, who was based in the French capital at the time. It had been acquired in 1916 by the European vendor's grandfather, who was a friend of the artist.
Regarded as one of the most important works by a Russian artist in this period and offered completely fresh to the market, the estimate was a hefty £3m-5m, but a decent competition emerged on the day after it drew considerable interest at viewings both in London and Moscow.
The sale also offered seven preparatory sketches for this painting, one of which took £90,000.
Overall, Christie's 327-lot sale, which included works of art as well as pictures, came in at £9.77m hammer, with 191 lots (58 per cent) finding buyers.
Sotheby's (25/20/12% buyer's premium) 55-lot Important Russian Art evening sale on the same day achieved a £11.9m hammer total from 36 lots (65 per cent). The best Repin on offer here was a portrait of the artist's wife, which made a low-estimate £1m and sold to a Russian private buyer.
The auction was led by Vasily Vereschagin's (1842-1904) The Taj Mahal, Evening, which also set an artist's record, selling to an unnamed buyer on the phone at £2m.
Drawing bidding from four interested parties against a £250,000-450,000 estimate, it was one of a group of works at the sale by Vereschagin and was deemed among the best paintings to come out of his trip to India from 1874 to 1876.
Sotheby's saw a further £2.71m provided by their Russian paintings day sale and £3.29m from their works of art, Fabergé and icons sale.
Meanwhile, MacDougall's (25/20/12% buyer's premium) Russian Classic Art sale on June 8 made a £7.25m hammer total. Here, too, a painting entered the million-pound bracket as Boris Kustodiev's (1878-1927) Portrait of Irina Kustodiva from 1911 made £1.5m against a £1.2m-1.8m estimate.
Further contributions from their sales of Russian Contemporary art, works on paper and works of art took MacDougall's total for the week to £8.48m.
Bonhams (20/12% buyer's premium) also held a Russian sale on June 8 offering a mixture of pictures and objects. It made a £2.95m total and saw a top price of £220,000 for the picture The appeal of Minin to the people of Nizhni Novgorod by Konstantin Egorovich Makovsky (1839-1915).
By Alex Capon