From Russia, with cash: London seeks to tap art boom

London, Nov 28 | Updated: Nov 29 2004, 05:30am hrs
Flush with cash and culturally conscious, Moscows millionaires are descending on London to snap up national treasures at what is being billed the biggest offering of Russian paintings ever.

So-called New Russians have accumulated vast fortunes, helped by rising prices for oil and other raw materials, and have spent some of that wealth on buying works by artists they were taught in school to revere.

I would say that 90% of the buyers and people driving the phenomenon are New Russians from Moscow, Joanna Vickery, Sothebys Russian art specialist, told Reuters.

In a bid to tap one of the art worlds hottest sectors, Christies and Sothebys go head-to-head with sales on Tuesday and Wednesday respectively.

Christies also holds a silver and gold auction, imperial wines go under the hammer at Sothebys and newly opened saleroom MacDougalls, specialising in Russian art, believes the appetite is there to justify its own event on Tuesday.

Yet the booming Russian art market has brought with it a growing number of forgeries, raising concerns that the more buyers pay for works, the more likely they are to be fakes.

Vladimir Asriev, of online auctioneer, said rich Russians were prepared to part with increasingly large sums for a piece of their countrys heritage. Russian art is a question of prestige rather than anything else national pride and something the Russians are familiar with, he said.

The desire to return to Russia some of the works sold in the West reverses a trend that started in 1917, when aristocrats fled the Bolshevik Revolution, and continued under Communist regimes strapped for cash and opposed to bourgeois excess.

Painters like Ivan Shishkin, Ilya Repin, Valentin Serov and Ivan Aivazovsky have led the way in recent years. Industry indices show their works have appreciated by between 250 and 600% since 1997.

Auctioneers recall how a typical sale of Russian art at a major auction house would fetch around 500,000 pounds ($950,000) 10 years ago.

Both Christies and Sothebys are forecasting sales in excess of eight million pounds this week, and a single lot at Christies auction on Tuesday, Aivazovskys St. Isaacs on a frosty day, has been estimated at 1.0-1.5 million pounds.

Experts agree that in recent years Russians have paid higher prices for art in London than elsewhere in the West, partly because of the prestige they feel it holds.

A lot of wealthy Russians have homes here, and the not-so-wealthy are sending their kids to school here, said William MacDougall of MacDougall Arts Ltd.

The city has also become something of a playground for Russias super-rich, including the likes of oil tycoon Roman Abramovich who has poured millions of pounds into Chelsea football club since buying it last season.

The sales will indicate whether or not the market for 19th Century Russian painters like Aivazovsky and Shishkin has peaked.

But MacDougall and others are taking no chances, seeking out new niches including artists once banned by the Soviets in the 1970s or painters who worked in Paris in the early 20th Century. There is also a growing middle class, said MacDougall. Many of them went to the West in the 1990s and got business degrees, came back to Russia and earned enough to spend, say, 2-10,000 pounds on a Russian painting.

This is not just the oligarchs, he added, referring to business leaders, some of whom have fallen foul of the Kremlin since former President Boris Yeltsin handed over power.

What auctioneers are desperate to avoid is a repeat of the embarrassing last-minute withdrawal from a Sothebys auction earlier this year of a painting purportedly by Shishkin and valued at about 500,000 pounds.

Art experts said the boom in Russian art had made the shortage of specialists all the more acute.

In the West and in Russia there needs to be a growth in new experts, particularly those who concentrate on one artist and not a whole period, said Sothebys Vickery.