‘The Bay of Naples’ by Ivan Aivazovsky
‘The Bay of Naples’ by Ivan Aivazovsky – £1.9m at Sotheby’s.

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The Bay of Naples by Ivan Aivazovsky (1817-1900) – the biggest name in 19th century Russian art – was estimated at £800,000-1.2m in the timed online auction that was run from London and closed on June 2.

It came from a private European consignor who had bought it at Koller Auktionen in Zurich for CHF2m (£985,270) including premium back in September 2008.

In the 12 years since then prices for Aivazovsky have expanded significantly with the number of works now selling for over £1m becoming ever greater.
While his Romantic paintings are something of a staple on the market, this particular picture had special appeal in terms of its subject matter, substantial size and also date.

The highly finished oil on canvas had the hazy light and shimmering water that made it an instantly recognisable work and the setting of the Southern Italian coastline was also particularly attractive to buyers in this sector.

It was painted in 1878 when the artist was at the height of his powers having achieved fame in Russia and abroad for his seascapes especially. Measuring 4ft 9in x 6ft 10in (1.44 x 2.09m), it was one of the largest paintings by Aivazovsky to have appeared on the open market, giving it plenty of wall power.

At the auction, it drew 16 bids and eventually sold at £1.9m. It was bought by a private European collector who will pay £2.3m once buyer’s premium is added.
The result surpassed the record for a painting sold in an online sale which was set only last month when Giorgio Morandi’s Natura morta (Still Life) made $1.6m (£1.31m) including premium at a Sotheby’s auction run out of New York.

The previous high for a lot sold at a UK auction during the lockdown was A Visit: A Harem Interior by Henriette Browne that made a hammer price of £650,000 at Sotheby’s, setting a record for an Orientalist painting by a female artist.

The price for The Bay of Naples, while a major sum, was not a record for Aivazovsky however. At least two works have made more: American Shipping off the Rock of Gibraltar made £2.7m at Christie's London in 2007 and View of Constantinople and the Bosphorus fetched £3.2m at Sotheby’s in April 2012 – both prices including premium.

Online conversion

The Sotheby’s sale was its first ever flagship sale of Russian Pictures to be held online and it generated a hammer total of £4.56m (£5.6m including premium) against a pre-sale estimate of £3.9-5.1m. The selling rate was 70.9% with 100 of the 141 lots sold.

It was one of the numerous sales that had originally been scheduled as a live auction but, due to the current circumstances of the coronavirus, was converted into an online event.

The total though was well below the premium-inclusive £10.4m from Sotheby’s equivalent Russian art sale in June 2019, and would have been even further down without the Aivazovsky that was the top lot of the auction by some distance. The number of lots was not significantly reduced but it would appear that consignments of major works were less forthcoming than the previous year’s sale.

So far this year Sotheby’s has staged over 85 dedicated online auctions, six times the amount for the equivalent period in 2019.

At this sale, Sotheby’s reported that nearly 20% of both buyers and bidders were new clients with almost 30% of buyers were aged 40 or under.

Sotheby’s next auction in the Russian category is a works of art sale that will be run online and opens for bidding on June 9.