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Russian art bubble bursts

By Marina Denysenko
BBC News

The Russian art market has exploded in recent years, booming as rich industrialists and financiers ploughed their growing fortunes into painting and sculpture.

Natalia Goncharova's Still Life with Watermelons
Goncharova's Still Life was one of the priciest works this week
But this bubble, like many others, now seems to have burst. Major auction houses have failed to sell many of their items at sales in London this week.

Hundreds of Russian art dealers and collectors converge on four London auction houses twice a year, in November and June, to acquire paintings, jewellery, porcelain, Faberge items and icons - but this week they had less to show for it.

The years of record prices are over. Auction houses have struggled to reach even their lowest pre-sale estimates.

In all, Sotheby's netted £25m ($38m) - lower than its minimum pre-sale estimate of £30m. Its main rival, Christie's, took nearly £14m - that is £8m less than its lowest forecast.

Both houses claimed this was the best they could do under the circumstances.

"Given the current economic climate, we are very pleased with the total achieved," said Jo Vickery, head of Sotheby's Russian Art department.

We are in difficult times
Anthony Phillips
Christie's International Director

Works of early 20th-Century Russian avant-garde fetched the highest prices at these auctions, with Mikhail Larionov's Reclining Nude selling at £1.38m at Sotheby's, and his wife Natalia Goncharova's painting, Still Life with Watermelons, going for £1.5m.

That was a relief for both auction houses, as these top lots managed to sell slightly above their lowest estimates.

The gloomy picture was apparent on the first day of the sales, when the jewel of Christie's Russian Works of Art collection, a magnificent silver soup tureen, once belonging to Russian Tsarina Catherine II, failed to fetch the forecast £400,000-600,000 and did not sell.

Anthony Phillips, Christie's International Director, was clearly disappointed.

"It reflects the situation on the market. We are in difficult times," he said.

Euphoria gone

This contrasted with the bonanza of last year, when Christie's hit the headlines with the sale of an exquisite Faberge egg to a Russian collector for £8.9m.

"It's evident that auction houses' sales are not marked by the euphoria of previous years. Buyers do not rush to spend," Tatiana Markina from the Russian business newspaper Kommersant says.

Silver soup tureen made for Catherine II
This silver soup tureen failed to reach its reserve price

"There are no longer prices exceeding original estimates ten-fold. There is hardly any telephone bidding. Top lots remain unsold."

A similar situation was observed at MacDougall's, a UK auction house specialising in Russian art, and Bonham's, the smallest of the four, which sold only about one-third of its collection and none of its top lots.

The art experts say that the market is in limbo, as buyers cannot accept existing prices, while sellers cannot accept a new reality.

"The top end of the market has been particularly affected," Ms Markina says. "But the medium-priced segment is still selling out, at least on a low estimate."

"I have just purchased a watercolour by Alexandre Benois and a drawing by Mstislav Dobuzinsky at Bonham's, both below its lowest estimate", says Elisaveta Meshkvicheva, an art dealer from London-based Ravenscourt Galleries.

The works, which total several thousand pounds, are for one of her clients, a Russian collector.

Private art

The sales are particularly disappointing for the major auction houses which have recently put lots of effort into promoting their brands in Russia and Ukraine - another rapidly growing post-Soviet market.

Rothschild Faberge egg, bought 2007 for £8.9m
There was no repeat of last year's £8.9m for a Faberge egg

The competition is intensifying as auction houses do their best to win clients and best work. Sotheby's, Christie's and MacDougall's have been taking their collections to Moscow for viewings, and most recently to Kiev, while Sotheby's and Christie's have fully operational offices in Russia.

"Auction houses care about their image a lot, and it has risen over the past years, as well as the quality of material put for sale," Ms Meshkvicheva admits.

"However, buying and selling through international auction houses still remains relatively unpopular among Russian collectors, especially on the selling side."

There are several hundred collectors in Russia and Ukraine, and many of them buy art to bring it back to its place of origin, Ms Markina believes.

Contrary to popular belief, she says, relatively few see it as an investment, and many are increasingly keen to build up good quality collections.

But little of the art ends up being accessible to the public.

Last year Russian collector Alexander Ivanov sent shockwaves around the art world by buying an exclusively crafted Faberge egg with an encrusted golden cockerel inside.

Mr Ivanov, a former secret service officer, wanted to bring it back "into the context of Russian culture, where it originally belonged," his spokespeople said at the time.

But, Ms Markina says, his little-known Russian national museum exists "in virtual reality", and is not open to the general public.

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