Russia Art Week: Ukraine-proof?

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Russia’s super rich have been losing money as the Ukraine crisis escalates but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll stop splurging on Russian art. International auction houses are nervously awaiting the results of the next Russia Art Week sales that open in London in less than two weeks’ time.

Most of the Russian art sold at auction changes hands during the bilateral Russia Art Weeks held every June and November in the UK capital. Collectors, almost all from Russia and Ukraine, spent a total of more than £50m at the last event to acquire a share in their rich cultural heritage. Auction houses are not saying if western sanctions imposed after the Kremlin grabbed control of Crimea have hit any big Russian art buyers. But almost all are concerned that the political and economic fallout from Russia’s behavior in Ukraine could impact badly on business at Russia Art Week.

In a sign of nervousness, Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Bonhams have opted out of the preview exhibitions in Moscow usually held to whet the appetite of collectors’ ahead of the London auctions.

MacDougall’s deals exclusively in Russian art and is more dependent than its competitors on Russia Art Week for its bread and butter. In what appears to be an opportunistic move, the auction house has dedicated its preview show* to a collection of Crimea landscapes dating from the time before the Soviet authorities took the fateful decision to gift the Black Sea peninsular to Ukraine.

The Crimea canvasses are the icing on the cake of what MacDougall’s has in store for Russian Art Week. In all, the auction house will be offering 500 lots including paintings, art works, icons and Fabergé with a total estimated value of $20m.

“We continue to be very optimistic about these auctions,” says William MacDougall, co-founder of MacDougall’s. “In spite of the world difficulties, there are still Russians with money and they have to invest it somewhere.”

Russian billionaires, driven by easy money, vanity and the search for safe investments have become a major force in global art markets helping, together with their Asian and Chinese counterparts, to inflate prices for trophy works. Even with the Ukraine crisis weighing on investor sentiment, Russian buyers were out in force at Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Art day sale in New York this month, accounting for 12 per cent of the record $66.4m raised at the annual event.

However, Russia Art Week is presenting auction houses with particular challenges.

On the supply side, art sellers know the event attracts mainly Russian and Ukrainian buyers. Unless desperate to raise cash, they are reluctant in such uncertain times to put their works up for sale.

Then there are logistical difficulties. Art market sources say Bonhams, Christie’s and Sotheby’s decided to skip preview exhibitions in Moscow after encountering problems with insurance. Transporting art works across the Russian border at a time when western government are threatening tougher sanctions could be asking for trouble.

Even without a preview exhibition to host, Mark Poltimore, deputy chairman of Sotheby’s Europe, visited Moscow this month to flag the forthcoming Russia Art Week. After meetings with Sotheby’s Russian clients he sounded a cautious note. “We’ve been told a lot of people are coming. But we’ll be wiser after the event.”

Auctioneers hope that some of the cash pulled out of Russia in the wake of the Ukraine crisis might trickle into the art market. As capital outflows surged above $60bn in the first quarter of the year, UK real estate agencies reported a sharp rise in interest from Russian buyers seeking relatively safe investments in London houses.

Property booms tend to be good for art dealers, says William MacDougall. “House buyers have to have something to hang on the wall.”

A favorite holiday spot in Tsarist and Soviet times, Crimea has played an important role in Russia’s cultural history inspiring writers and artists alike. Many of Russia’s greatest painters from Isaac Levitan to Konstantin Korovin and Pyotr Konchalovsky travelled there to work.

It might be a coincidence but paintings by Ivan Aivazovsky, the Crimea-born 19th century romantic artist, feature strongly in the lots auction houses will offer at Russia Art Week. Bonhams has fronted its online catalogue with Aivazovsky’s French Ships Departing the Black Sea while Sotheby’s has the magnificent Shipwreck on the Black Sea Coast (pictured) with a price tag of £1.4m to £1.8m.

Russian collectors have always liked Crimea paintings that recall their childhood holiday haunts. This year ownership of the Black Sea landscapes could take on new meaning as a badge of patriotism and good citizenship. “We think the Crimea paintings will sell very well,” says William MacDougall. “They make an ideal present.”

*Crimea landscapes of XIX-XX Centuries, MacDougall’s, Yermolaevsky Pereulok 25, Moscow.

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Related reading:
Shelling out for Fabergé, FT
Russia Art Week: big money for mobile assets, beyondbrics (2013)