JUST OVER HALF the 82 lots in MacDougall’s debut sale of Russian Photography on May 21 found takers. The auction totalled £65,740, with around 40 present in the saleroom but most of the bidding conducted over the telephone. The two principal buyers were regular clients of the firm – used to buying Russian paintings, but now turning their attention to photography for the first time. MacDougall’s also reported British, Qatari and American buyers.
The sale began with 22 hand-coloured photographs by Denmark’s Torwald Mitreiter, each featuring a solitary male or female figure in a studio landscape, clad in traditional costumes from Eastern Europe and the Balkans. These prints were handsomely displayed at the viewing (see above) – although I suspect the cheap frames used for most of the lots in the sale undermined their appeal and may, in retrospect, be viewed as a false economy.
The Mitreiter ensemble was both decorative and rare – by a photographer now forgotten to all but the cognoscenti, who worked in Russia between the 1860s-90s and whose memory is lovingly preserved at St Petersburg’s Ethnographic Museum. Fourteen of the 22 works sold – all for mid-estimate prices of £1690-1820, and all to the same buyer bidding by phone.
The sale’s other most popular photographer was Alexander Grinberg, with four Nude studies – silver gelatin prints from the interwar period, exuding a brazen eroticism at odds with Soviet ideology – that sold for between £1560-£3380. Two of them went to the same telephone bidder, who also acquired two further Nudes from c.1970 by Latvian photographer Gunars Binde (below left) for £1610 and £1340, as well as prints by Leonid Shokin and Evgeny Khaldei.
Among the most attractive works on offer were still lifes by Alexander Khlebnikov. The finest were two gelatin silver prints from the 1930s: one featuring Black Bread, 18 x 24cm (below); the other a Glass & Bottle of Milk, 30 x 24cm. Both sold for £1820 apiece to the same phone buyer, who also bought Georgy Zelma’s poignant Residents of Stalingrad in their Liberated City for £650, and Boris Ignatovich’s Military Exercise (a 1930s vintage print) for £2600.
The sale’s only colour photograph – a large 1961 cibachrome print by Georgy Zelma showing Yuri Gagarin with his Family, 48 x 41cm – provoked a fierce battle between two bidders at the back of the room before selling for a top-estimate £2080.
Zelma’s Mass Grave – Stalingrad doubled estimate on £1040, selling in the saleroom to a buyer who also snaffled four other lots with a World War II theme: a couple of Battle views by Markov-Grinberg for £1040; Dmitry Baltermants’ She Found Her Husband for £910; Evgeny Khaldei’s Red Flag on the Brandenburg Gate for £910; and Khaldei’s Soldier Carrying a Wounded Comrade for £650.
Six early 1840s daguerreotype views of Cairo and Rome by pioneering French lensman Girault de Prangey, expected to bring £20,000-30,000 apiece, were all bought in bidless at £15,000. While such non-Russian material may have left MacDougall’s traditional clients disoriented, the lack of interest from international dealers and collectors, in town for London Photo Week, was disappointing.
Albumen prints by Yuri Dutkevich, showing scenes from western Ukraine in the late 19th century, were also unsold – as were two spectacular gelatin silver prints by Max Alpert: a Kyrgyz horsewoman at the gallop (c.1936), and a view of the Dnieper Hydroelectric Station – which (as the catalogue surprisingly omitted to mention) dominates the city of Zaporozhye in southern Ukraine. The fact that this image was, like several in the sale, a later reprint (from the 1960s) rather than a vintage print may also have affected its appeal – although a £1,000 reserve for a 50 year-old photograph of such power and size (40 x 29cm) looked far from unreasonable.
Auctioneer Charlie Ross (despite rhyming Dniepr with wiper) drew applause for another virtuoso performance at the rostrum, and there was a typically stylish drinks reception at the end of the sale – when William MacDougall (pictured below) announced plans to ‘introduce Russian classic and contemporary photography as a regular feature on the international photography auction scene.’
MacDougall’s 397-lot Russian Art Week sale on June 8 will duly feature a further 63 photo lots, again from the same ‘European Private Collection’ – including some more delightful Khlebnikovs, and a high-powered array of images of Russian fin-de-régime nobility starring tragic tsar Nicholas II.
BUNIN PHOTO HEADS PARIS SALE
The 48-lot Art Russe sale at Cazo in Paris on April 30, under the firm’s Russian specialist Tatiana Barysheva and complete with bilingual French/Russian catalogue, majored on the Archives of Gregory Alexinsky (1879-1967) – an early Bolshevik who fell out with Lenin, was arrested by the Cheka, fled to Estonia and ultimately settled in Paris, where he became Chairman of the Russian Council.
Auction highlight was this photographic portrait of Ivan Bunin (1870-1953), with a signed dedication (in Russian) to Alexinsky’s wife Tatiana dated 16 October 1953 (a few weeks before Bunin’s death). The photo actually dated from 1933, the year Bunin – who quit Russia in 1920 and settled in France, dividing his time between Paris and Provence – became the first émigré author to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
An impressive €32,000 went to a photographic portrait of another celebrated Russian exile: Symbolist poet Konstantin Balmont (1967-42). It came with a dedication to Gregory Alexinsky.
Images are courtesy of the author.
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