The tense political situation in Russia and Ukraine and sanctions imposed by the US Treasury on a number of oligarchs seem likely to have a major impact on art exhibitions in Russia. In Moscow, the British Council has decided to cancel a major retrospective of work by the Young British Artists, because its venue, the Ekaterina Cultural Foundation, failed to raise the anticipated sponsorship. It was to be one of the UK-Russia Year of Culture key events; there is talk of postponing the show to 2016, but funding may still be difficult to find. A Banksy show, scheduled for September 2014 at the Manege, Moscow, has also been cancelled, because, according to Russian website Artguide.com, the organisers say key British lenders have pulled out of loaning works.
Other cancellations may follow. The roving European biennale Manifesta, slated for St Petersburg at the end of June, is in the balance: in an interview on German television, its chief curator Kasper König said the new anti-gay law coupled with difficulties in working with Russians might yet make him pull the plug on the whole event. There had already been widespread calls for it to be postponed, with petitions urging its postponement or relocation to Ukraine itself.
And as tensions heightened, in the run-up to their London Russian sales week in May, Sotheby’s and Christie’s pulled a promotional preview of highlights from their London sales in the Russian capital.
With this as a backdrop, fears were intense that the market for Russian art would be severely hit by the fallout from the political turmoil. During Russian art week in London earlier this month, four auction houses lined up hundreds of paintings, porcelains, works of art and precious knick-knacks worth millions of pounds, all aimed at their Russian clients.
News that Russian assets have been heading massively for the exit this year – about $64 billion left the country in the first three months – did little to calm the salerooms’ pre-sale jitters. Would some of that money go into art, or into property, which has proved to be a highly popular parking place for roubles, along with Chinese yuan, Emirati dirhams and Qatari rials?
A week later, the auction houses were breathing a collective sigh of relief. Not only did the Russians come, and buy, but their spending was higher than at any other time since 2007, when the market was at its most bouyant. Over £64m was splurged on art in the week, from staid portraits of Russian aristocrats to wild avant-garde abstracts from the early 20th Century. At Christie’s single buyer scooped up five paintings by Vladimir Borovikovsky, shelling out a total of £8m, massively over the £210,000 the group was estimated at.
But the crème de la crème of the week’s offerings was a collection of 11 works sent for sale by an unidentified German and dating from the Russian avant-garde period. This is an area fraught with problems of provenance and authenticity – last year a massive forgery ring was uncovered in Germany, and the auction houses often refuse to handle such works at all today.
The result is that when works with a solid provenance do come to auction, as was the case with these 11 pictures, buyers are frantic to get them. This is what happened at Sotheby’s. Among them was a small drawing of a peasant’s head by the renowned artist Kazimir Malevich, which sold for £2.1m, well over its estimate of £600,000-£800,000. Another highly sought-after work was a colourful Figure with a Guitar by Varvara Stepanova, which sold for £1.7m. Its estimate was £250,000-£350,000. And perhaps the most astonishing price hike was made for a Cubist-like composition by Vasily Ermilov, whose Self Portrait sold for £986,500, smashing pre-sale expectations of £30,000-£50,000.
Paintings weren’t the only things for which hands were waving. Showy and imposing 19th Century porcelain vases are always popular with Russians, and Christie’s sold a pair for £662,500. Buyers also fell on works by the ever-popular Fabergé, whose jewelled Easter eggs made for the Imperial court are among the most coveted of baubles – for those who can afford the million-dollar price tags. At Sotheby’s a gem-set silver casket sold for £422,500, and in a break with the usual pattern in a market where buyers are almost always from the former Soviet Union, it was bought by a private Asian client. As Sotheby’s specialist Frances Asquith said after the sale: “Witnessing the first five lots in our evening sale all sell for over £1 million quickly dispelled any pre-sale doubts that had been raised about the market.”