Art Market

New hopes for contemporary Russian art market?

Simon Hewitt

07 January, 2020

Simon Hewitt comments on the results of the recent Russian contemporary art auction sales in London in Moscow. Last November, MacDougall’s staged its first Contemporary art sale in 10 years, which was followed by the traditional autumn sale at the Moscow contemporary art auction house Vladey: both reported 7-digit grand totals.

Ivan Chuikov and Valery Koshlyakov starred in the saleroom as Moscow’s Vladey went head to head with MacDougall’s and other London firms in the last week of November.

The 122-lot Vladey sale, conducted in Euros at Moscow’s Ekaterina Foundation on November 26, totalled €1.62 million, with 72 lots sold and five works clearing €100,000. 

Two giant works by Koshlyakov fetched double their estimate: ‘She-Wolf’ from his 1997 Museums series, went for €156,000; and a 1991 view of a Roman amphitheatre for €138,000. Two works by Oleg Vassiliev were among nine consigned by collector Igor Markin: ‘Freedom in the Fog of Night’ (1991) sold for €144,000, and ‘Forest’ (1993) for €120,000. A 1986 Semyon Faibisovich diptych, ‘Daffodils in a Mirror’, reached €103,200.

Several other Non-Conformist works achieved strong prices: Timur Novikov’s 1988 Aeroplane banner, €60,000; Dmitri Plavinsky’s 1977 ‘Cliffs’ and Piotr Belenok’s 1981 ‘Escape’, both €30,000; Chuikov’s 2000 ‘Window XLI’, €25,200; and a small, Fauve, 1988 ‘Viktor Tsoi view of a Woman Driving’, €12,000. 

Four works dated 2019 doubled their estimate: Egor Koshelev’s ‘Alchemist’ went for €22,800; Ivan Razumov’s Snowfall for €19,200; Kirill Lebedev’s ‘Sorry To Meet You’ for €6,000; and Vova Marin’s ingenious logs-and-saw Dog for €1,440.

The equivalent of €2.3 million changed hands in four sales in London during ‘Russian Week’ (November 25-27), when 188 contemporary works were offered, the majority (126) at MacDougall’s, who staged their first individual sale of Contemporary Art since 2008. It brought £1.05 million and included five different collections.

Chief of these was a “Swiss Collection” of Moscow Conceptualism. Fourteen of its 21 lots sold, led by two 180x130 cm Chuikovs in acrylic and collage from his 1992 ‘Postcards’ series: ‘N°7’ for £63,500 and ‘N° 10’ for £121,500. ‘Point of View II’ (1990), another Chuikov from a “UK Private Collection”, fetched £46,800. 

MacDougall’s second highest seller was the giant ‘Crucifixion’ (1990/1) by Leonid Purygin at £83,200. Koshlyakov’s ‘Bolshoi Theatre’ diptych, another vast architectural scene from the 1990s, made £41,600.

Nineteen works acquired around 1990 by Swiss dealer Manfred Schoeni, who ran a gallery in Hong Kong from 1992 until his murder in 2004, were consigned by his daughter Nicole. Ten sold, totalling £80,000. They included Oscar Rabin’s ‘Untidy Still Life’ (1963) for £22,200; Ernst Neizvestny’s bronze ‘Pantheism’ (4/9) for £12,800; and three black-and-white works by Alexei Sundukov, whose ‘Twentieth Century Atlantis’ at £8,800 was the only lot sold for less than its estimate. In London (unlike in Moscow), the published low-estimate is usually the reserve price (Vladey sold 18 works at below low-estimate).

Chuikov also provided the top contemporary price at Sotheby’s with ‘Windows 4’ (2007) at £100,000. His much earlier ‘Cloud’ (1978), in oil on board, scored £12,600 at Bonhams.

Christie’soffered five lots by Dmitri Plavinsky from a Virginia collection, acquired from the artist in Moscow in 1975. Two sold: a set of four etchings for £6,250 and ‘Watchtower near Izborsk’ (1973), a painting, for £22,500. Sotheby’s, meanwhile, had five works by Eduard Gorokhovsky, from three different consignors; likewise, two sold, led by ‘Perestroika’ (1990) for £37,500.

The auction market for Russian Contemporary Art has been largely dormant since 2008, when Sotheby’s and MacDougall’s were staging specialist sales in London. To find €4 million changing hands in Moscow and London in a three-day period looks significant and cements Vladey’s status as a major player in the field (although it is curious that they should have staged their sale at the same time as London Russian Week. In 2018, Vladey’s ‘Autumn Auction’ was held two weeks earlier).

In price terms, the Non-Conformist market has long been dominated by Kabakov and Bulatov but, as the supply of their works dwindles, new figureheads are needed. The recent auctions see, at least for now, Chuikov assuming that role, with Koshlyakov the torch-bearer for the 1990s. To find Koshlyakov achieving bigger prices in Moscow than in London, for broadly similar works, will give collectors food for thought. Tselkov’s saleability is suffering from the surfeit of his works that have flooded the market in recent years. Plavinsky, to me, looks under-valued. 

The number of works landing in the Vladey saleroom straight from the artist’s studio is hardly a ringing endorsement of the Moscow gallery scene. For other works, Vladey’s credibility would be enhanced if they provided more information about provenance: MacDougall’s informative and lavishly illustrated catalogues set the standard here. Both firms, and the market as a whole, would benefit from making more of an effort when it comes to post-sale PR. 

William MacDougall has long been saying that Russian Contemporary is the most under-valued area of the art market, and a great investment opportunity. It is too early to say if the buoyant November sales reflect a watershed en route to that prophecy being fulfilled, but they provide grounds for optimism.



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