Contemporary Russia – An emerging market



After Sotheby’s sale of contemporary Russian art in February and the second edition of the Moscow biennial art fair in March, contemporary Russian art is enjoying considerable effervescence. In historical terms, Russian artists’ freedom to express themselves is a relatively recent phenomenon. For example, in 1974 an exhibition of non-conformists in Moscow was demolished by a State bulldozer. Over recent years the cultural face of the Russian capital has changed radically with the opening of contemporary art centres. Although much of the contemporary work is focused on social and political critiques of the old communist regime, a broad diversification of artistic languages is beginning to emerge. Contemporary Russian art is attracting more and more amateur art collectors; however, for the time being, the majority of professional collectors are still of Russian origin.

Ilya KABAKOV, a Ukrainian born in 1933, is an unavoidable figure in contemporary Russian creativity. He is familiar with auction exposure and has sold more than 60 lots in public sales of which a majority have been drawings that sell for between EUR 4,000 and 8,000 on average. On 31 May 2006 at Sotheby’s London, a lot of 31 drawings from the 1970s entitled Where are they? far outstripped its estimate by selling for GBP 220,000 (more than EUR 320,000!) Indeed, the whole generation of artists surrounding Kabakov – born between the mid-1920s and the 1940s – is currently enjoying strong market effervescence. The inflation in value of the works of these artists accelerated in February of this year when Sotheby’s of London held its annual contemporary Russian art sale, an event it has been hosting since 1988. Among the artists presented there were Grisha BRUSKIN, Vitalii KOMAR, Boris ORLOV, Vladimir OVCHINNIKOV, Oskar RABIN, Viktor PIVOVAROV, , Natalia NESTEROVA and Mikhail CHEMIAKIN. The sale was a major success with 80% of the lots being sold. The highest bid during the sale was for an untitled work by Evgeny CHUBAROV which brought to mind Jackson POLLOCK’s dripping paintings. Estimated at between GBP 40,000 and 60,000, the piece fetched GBP 240,000 (over EUR 358,000), a particularly spectacular figure considering it was Chubarov first ever auction sale! The second highest bid was for Révolution-Perestroika, a painting by Eric BULATOV from a private American collection which went under the hammer for GBP 165,000 (EUR 246,000) setting a new record for the artist. A third record was also set when a painting entitled Avid Eye by Mikhail Matveevich SHVARTSMAN (1926-97) more than tripled its estimate by selling for GBP 160,000 (close to EUR 230,000); yet another surprise considering the infancy of the market for Mikhail Matveevich SHVARTSMAN’s works. In effect, that was only the second piece by the artist to sell at a public auction; the first, Morning Road fetched GBP 40,000 (just under EUR 60,000) in November 2006.Aside from these lofty bids, some works were offered for less than GBP 5,000 such as a still life by Dmitri PRIGOV entitled Evening in Koktebel that sold for pour GBP 3,000 (EUR 4,481).

The younger generation of Russian artists born in the 50s and 60s has not yet acceded to a developed auction market. Nevertheless, French art collectors are already active in this field and are following young artists like Vladimir & Alexander DUBOSSARSKY & VINOGRADOV. For example, on 1 April last the Parisian auction house Cornette de Saint-Cyr Paris handled this artistic duo’s third auction appearance, the Landscape, which doubled its estimate selling for EUR 27,000! The presence in Paris of galleries specialised in Russian art has boosted the Russian creative scene. Moreover, the French auction house Calmels-Cohen actively supports the digital prints of the AES group founded in 1987. The three works submitted for auction by Calmels-Cohen all found buyers for prices between EUR 800 and 2,200 (9 June, 2005). A number of other Russian artists are also beginning to be mentioned at exhibitions and in the specialised art media such as Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe, Viatcheslav Mizine, Alexandre Chabourov, Constantin Batynkov, Alexandre Ponomarev and Avdei Ter-Oganyan; but they are still unknown (or almost) at public auctions… however, the excellent results at Sotheby’s this year prove that things can change very quickly!