Preview: Russian Art Week in London

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Preview: Russian Art Week in London

This June Russian Art Week in London returns for what looks set to be another record breaking week of sales. The event was launched in November 2012 by Russian Art and Culture alongside participating auction houses and galleries, and has now become a major bi-annual event in the art world calendar. Although the auction houses have traditionally held Russian sales in June and November each year, this project has brought together commercial and academic participants to form an exciting new platform for exchange and debate on Russian art. The week’s core events will be the sales at Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Bonhams and MacDougall’s who will all be holding specialist sales of Russian paintings, icons , Fabergé and works of art.

Despite the UK’s economic stagnation and the recent double dip recession, it seems the Russian art market has remained a growth market with increased sales year on year. Last November’s event generated total sales of over £40 million with stand-out lots by painters Valentin Serov and Boris Kustodiev smashing all previous auction records for these two artists. I asked William MacDougall, founder of the specialist Russian auction house MacDougall’s, why he thought the Russian art market continued to thrive and what his predictions were for this year’s event.“Wealthy Russians who kept their wealth in art are much better off than those who kept it in Cypriot bank accounts’’ he explains. “Unlike bank deposits, 'haircuts' cannot be taken off paintings, and this greater safety in difficult times is bound to be reflected in auction purchases.  And indeed high quality works have done well since the financial crisis, with artists often achieving new records.  We are optimistic about our 5 June auction and the market in general”. It seems likely then that we can expect an upward trajectory of investment in Russian art to resume in June as London continues to assert itself as a key centre in the International art market.

Sales highlights this year continue to display works of high quality which ensures they appeal to buyers. Bonhams will be presenting a beautiful Fabergé Imperial jewelled silver-gilt and enamel cigarette case. Not only is this an example of the highest craftsmanship, this small object also has an intriguing provenance. Head of Russian Art for the auction house Sophie Law remarked, “There can be few items of recent Russian history that bear such a weight of sentiment. It is a gift of love between a doomed royal couple on the occasion of their daughter’s birth. Faberge’s craftsmanship is sublime and this cigarette case represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to own a Romanov item that passed from hand to hand in such an intimate context. I would expect this case to excite much interest in the Russian market as well as in the international arena, given that 2013 marks the 400th anniversary of the Romanov dynasty”.

Sotheby’s, meanwhile, will be presenting a work by Natalia Goncharova, one of the most sought after and expensive female artists at auction. The lot stands out from her oeuvre for the two dimensional, non-representational forms and earthier palette which demonstrate a move from Matisse and the Fauves towards Ozenfant and the Purists. Senior Director Joanna Vickery remarked, “The current market for Russian art remains buoyant and Sotheby’s continues to be at the forefront of developments in this field. Our recent ‘Important Russian Art Evening’ sale achieved an extraordinary 90% sold rate, with the overall result for the November Russian paintings sales totalling £17 million – the highest for any London auction house”. Christie’s are also presenting an exquisite Fabergé creation, in this instance a Large Jewelled Two-Colour Gold-Mounted Purpurine Box as well as seascape by renowned nineteenth century master Ivan Aivazovsky, valued at £500k-£700k.

Although the auctions form the core of Russian Art Week in London, the event is complemented by an array of other cultural activities taking place in and around the capital. Russian Art and Culture publishes a free guide to this event that is available to download on their online platform. Alongside sale highlights, the website also features a comprehensive directory of galleries, specialist institutions and a calendar of events.

A number of exhibitions featuring Russian art coincide with the week and continue throughout June. Independent gallery ArtMost is exhibiting dynamic photographs by Valery Katsuba whilst Aktis Gallery in Mayfair is holding a retrospective of Soviet Non-Conformist Vladimir Yankilevsky’s rare early works. In South Kensington the Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibition Treasures of the Royal Courts: Tudors, Stuarts and the Russian Tsars, explores the cultural and political relationship between Britain and Russia in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries through the gifts the two countries exchanged. Outside of London the Tate’s retrospective of Chagall is a must see; whilst English stately home Houghton Hall has collaborated with the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg to present Old Master paintings. This impressive collection was sold in 1779 by Britain’s first Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole to Catherine the Great. The exhibition is the first time these pictures will have returned to their original home in over 200 years.

Other cultural activities taking place this June include theatre, film, music and lectures. Pushkin House is offering an array of events for those interested in all aspects of Russian culture. Their June line-up includes recitals, literary events and a chance to see the photography exhibition from London’s City Hall Abstraction/ Constructivism: British and Russian views of the City. This exhibition, originally conceived for the Maslenitsa Festival 2013, features breathtakingly unusual views of decaying architectural masterpieces in Moscow and St Petersburg by photographers Dmitry Konradt and Richard Pare. Meanwhile classical music fans can look forward to a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.6 (Pathétique) at Cadogan Hall on 4th June whilst a production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake will be playing throughout June at the Royal Albert Hall.

Following on from the success of Russian Art and Culture’s opening night event at the Russian Embassy with historian Antony Beevor, this organisation will also be hosting a number of special events intended to coincide with the art sales. A lively round table discussion on the subject of forgeries in Russian art will bring together a prominent Russian art dealer, a representative from the Art Loss Register and art historians to debate the increasing problem of art fakes to both collectors and academics. On the weekend, Contemporary Key will stage an introductory tour of contemporary art galleries in London specialising in Russian art and other events are planned.

Russian Art Week will also be a warm up event for the 2014 Russia-UK Year of Culture, which will have manifestations in both countries. The growth of the Russian art market in London and huge population of Russian émigrés in the country means that the year is sure to be a great success. Russian Art Week offers a unique opportunity for members of the public and specialists alike to enjoy the best of Russian culture in Britain.

For a full list of all the activities planned and to download your free guide to this event visit

Text by Theodora Clarke, the Director of Russian Art Week