Despite the unhelpful backdrop of Ukraine politics and the threat of economic sanctions, the Russian art market continued on its mercurial journey in the first week of June. The characteristic patchy selling rates for the ‘Londongrad’ sales were accompanied by moments of remarkable competition.
Sotheby's produced three separate catalogues for their June 2-3 Russian offering. The core of their 37-lot, £15.44m evening sale on June 2 was a German private collection of paintings of the Russian avant garde.
The 11 works had been acquired by the father of the vendor in the 1970s and the returns were huge.
Aristarkh Lentulov's Children with Parasols c.1912, bought for £180 at a Sotheby's sale in 1974, sold at £1.8m, while Ukrainian Vasdily Ermilov's Cubist oil and metal on wood Self Portrait c.1922, sold at Sotheby's for £4000 in 1973, took £820,000.
Works of art and a daytime sale of Russian pictures the following day brought the final hammer total to £19.8m - the best of the season and at Sotheby's in this category since 2008 - and this despite selling rates of roughly 50%.
Christie's sold the top-priced work of the series when the Orientalist oil The Pearl Mosque at Agra by Vasily Vereshchagin sold for a double-estimate £3.2m. It was one of two works by the artist sold to benefit the acquisitions fund of the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College in New York and had not appeared at auction for a century.
Portraits of the elite
But it was a series of portraits of members of the ruling elite c.1800 by Vladamir Borovikovsky that contributed most to the aggregate of £20.2m.
This quintet, consigned by Prince Ivan Obolensky (b.1925), whose father Serge built a major collection of Russian works of art as it emerged on the market after 1917, carried estimates of up to £70,000 each but took sums of between £500,000 and £2.6m apiece, the latter for Portrait of Countess Liubov Il'inichna Kusheleva, née Bezborodko with her two children Aleksandr and Grigorii c.1803. All five pictures sold to the same buyer.
On June 4 MacDougall's recorded premium-inclusive sales of £10.3m. The top-selling lots were Boy with a Cap Sitting on a Chair c.1910-11, a Cézanne-inspired oil by 'Jack of Diamonds' painter Robert Rafailovich Falk sold for £800,000, and Pavel Kuznetsov's Eastern City, Bukara, dated 1912, a well-known work from the artist's Central Asian series, sold at £1.9m.
William MacDougall, director, told ATG: "Confidence has returned to the market after the worries about Ukraine and sanctions of the last few months."
The same day Bonhams sold 62% of their 163 lots for a hammer total of £5.1m. Two lots dominated proceedings: The Signal Fires of Peace, a politically-charged oil of 1917-18 by Nikolai Konstantinovich Roerich sold at its top estimate of £1.2m, and a Fabergé hardstone figure of a bourgeoise c.1913 sold at a double-estimate £1m.