William MacDougall

The late William MacDougall who, along with his wife Catherine, founded MacDougall’s auction house.

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He died aged 67 of a heart attack in Moscow on the evening of August 25.

MacDougall, together with his wife Catherine who remains managing director of the business, founded the eponymous auction house in 2004, at a time when the Russian art market in London was burgeoning.

The couple had previously been London-based City analysts and art collectors themselves but sensed an opening in the market and decided to “realise the dream” of starting their own auction house.

With a host of new Russian clients entering the sector and a market increasingly centred on London, as well as benefitting from the removal of a 30% tax applied to all art imports into Russia in January of that year, the MacDougalls held their first sale at 33 St James Square in November 2004.

By promoting many lesser-known Russian artists alongside more established names, the firm gained a foothold in one of the art market’s fastest growing sectors. This, along with a less conventional and unstuffy approach, allowed it to compete with the likes of Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Bonhams, and generate rising totals through the ‘boom’ period.

In November 2012, the firm’s Russian-week series generated a total of £5.52m but the equivalent sales in 2017 reached £9.85m which included a record for a Soviet realist painting when Heroes of the first five year plan by Aleksandr Deinek (1899-1969) was knocked down at £2.2m.

MacDougall's successfully spread into other areas including Russian icons, works of art and paintings from other post-Soviet Eastern Bloc countries, and became the first western-based saleroom with representatives in both Moscow and Kyiv.

An attempt to break into the Old Master market in 2010 however proved more difficult.

Following the invasion of Ukraine earlier this year and the imposition of new sanctions on Russian clients, the firm was forced to drop its ‘Russia-week’ series along with other salerooms and the future of these events remains uncertain.

Russian heritage 

MacDougall was born in Canada but moved to California with his family aged four. His father worked for IBM and he grew up in Silicon Valley, in Palo Alto, and went to Stanford to read economics.

His family had strong Scottish but also Russian heritage. His grandfather was Alexander Chuhaldin, a famous lead violinist at the Bolshoi Theater who left Russia in 1924 and emigrated to Canada. He later became conductor of the Canada Broadcasting Company’s Radio Orchestra and had his portrait painted by Natalia Goncharova.

During the Mikhail Gorbachev’s period of perestroika, MacDougall first visited Russia after receiving a letter from a Russian relative, staying in Malakhovka, a suburb of Moscow, where his closest relatives lived. There he met Catherine, who was born in Moscow and whose great-grandfather had been a friend of Chuhaldin.

Later in life, MacDougall became Russian Orthodox and, following his death, he was buried in Malakhovka.

Catherine MacDougall has now returned to the UK and said she hopes “the situation to improve” in terms of the viability of future auctions. She told ATG: “As far as the future auctions are concerned, we will watch and see and pray. Russian art and culture have not been cancelled all together. Not forever, at any rate.”