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New Kids on the Bloc

John Varoli, Artinfo

For the past five years, collectors from the former Soviet Union have dominated Russian-art sales by paying record sums for classic works by revered names. But as traditional Russian areas, such as 19th-century genre pictures, took off, astute observers realized it was just a matter of time before this collector base would begin to look beyond its national heritage to Western art, and to spend lavishly on it. For many, the proof that this group had already arrived in the upper echelons of the international art market was the sale to an anonymous Eastern European bidder of Picasso's Dora Maar au chat for $95.2 million at Sotheby's New York in May 2006.
Russians may, in fact, be bidding up 20th-century French and German paintings instead of glittering Fabergé jewels. But how much are they really spending on non-Russian art, and what are they buying? Very little hard data exist on either count, since few of these collectors have made their identities, let alone their purchases, public. And with rumors driving perceptions, separating fact from fiction is difficult, especially when an "Eastern European" accent overheard at an art fair is taken as proof that deep-pocketed Russians are storming world art markets. Complicating matters, many names that sound Russian to untrained Western ears actually belong to citizens of other former Soviet republics: Ukraine and Georgia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. The buyer of the $95 million Picasso is believed to be Georgian billionaire Boris Ivanishvili.

What is certain is that while about 70 percent of Russia's 142 million citizens still live in dismal poverty, some of the country's residents are awash in money, much of it petrodollars or fortunes made when the government privatized many industries after the collapse of the Communist regime, in 1991. After decades of Soviet dictatorship and economic mismanagement, Russia is now home to one of the largest populations of billionaires in the world-at least 60-as well as to about 120,000 millionaires, according to Forbes and Deutsche Bank. And this affluent class is eager to spend freely, on real estate, private jets, designer clothing and expensive jewelry. The taste for luxury extends to art. To wealthy Russians, Rubens, Monet, Matisse and Picasso are status-conferring brand names that they know from childhood visits to the State Hermitage Museum, in St. Petersburg, and the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, in Moscow.

Most art dealers who cater to this group of collectors agree that in purchasing Western works, their clients are seeking not international headlines but the prestige such purchases bring within their tight-knit social circles. Some believe that only a small number of the buyers have an intellectual commitment to the art, and that most wealthy Russians are pragmatists who regard their acquisitions as investments and as ways to fill the walls of their homes.

For certain dealers and auction houses, the idea that Russian plutocrats could take up the slack created by potentially declining American and British financial power is soothing. They point to the firmly rooted tradition of connoisseurship in Russia and a longtime fascination with European civilization. Before the Communists seized power, in 1917, the country was home to great art collectors, who often bought entire collections from London, Rome and Paris. In the second half of the 18th century, Catherine the Great had ambassadors arrange the purchase of some of the grandest European holdings, including the Dutch and Flemish paintings once owned by Sir Robert Walpole, which were sold to the empress by Christie's London. (The pictures are now in the Hermitage.) Early 20th-century Moscow entrepreneurs Sergey Shchukin and Ivan Morozov acquired hundreds of French Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and modern works by artists such as Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso and van Gogh.

"Russians are extensively buying non-Russian art, especially European," says New York dealer Luba Mosionzhnik. "They are buying Impressionist, modern and German Expressionist. There's probably not a field they aren't interested in." Banking on this interest, Mosionzhnik opened the Shkola gallery in Moscow early last year, becoming the first Stateside dealer to set up shop in the capital.

Mosionzhnik has "several dozen" Russian clients, most of whom are in Moscow, and says she expects that "the number of buyers will increase in leaps and bounds, because I have been cultivating a number of clients for some time." She is among the dealers who say they have been impressed by their clients' attachment to and appreciation of the art.

According to Anna Belousova, Christie's chief representative in Moscow, one of the most surprising areas in which Russians have shown a strong interest is British Victorian art. "It appeals to them because they grew up with 19th-century Russian art, which is similar in style," she explains, adding that an additional factor is the relatively low prices of such paintings, which usually sell for $100,000 to $200,000 compared with the millions now commanded by Russian art of the same period.

Another category whose popularity is rooted in the nation's history is Old Masters. The Hermitage and the Pushkin are full of these works, many of which were part of aristocratic collections that were nationalized in 1918.

"Russian interest in Old Masters has made a significant impact on the market in recent years, and we now take our Russian clients very seriously," says Richard Knight, head of the Old Masters department of Christie's London, adding that his company has "10 or 12 Russian clients" willing to spend up to $5 million on a work.

The scarcity of quality pieces in this category and concerns over provenance have led Muscovite buyers to consider French Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. Russian collectors have been known to drop between $3 million and $15 million for top works in these fields, and both Christie's and Sotheby's believe that between 5 and 10 percent of bidders in these sales might now be Russian.

One collector with some salesroom experience is businessman Alexander Ivanov, the buyer of the $18.5 million Rothschild Fabergé egg at Christie's London last fall and owner of one of the world's most extensive holdings of Fabergé, with around 3,000 pieces. "I have about 20 Impressionist works, including paintings by Renoir, Sisley and Monet," says the Moscow-based Ivanov, who adds that he bought them all at Christie's about three or four years ago, when prices were lower than today. "In general, more Russian collectors are buying Impressionist works now. Russians have always supported Impressionists. Back in the 19th century, we were among the first to start collecting their work at a time when French society turned its back on them."

Another area that experts are keeping an eye on is German Expressionism, which was strongly influenced by Russian art. "It's a style Russians like because it's Western art with Russian artists in its midst, such as Kandinsky and Jawlensky," says Oxana Bondarenko, director of the Swiss-based Victoria Art Foundation, which was created last year by natural-gas billionaire Leonid Mikhelson and focuses on introducing Russian artists to the West. "Prices could rise in the near future because of Russian collectors."

Last October, Christie's promoted its forthcoming New York sales by sending some 40 artworks to Moscow, including paintings by Matisse, Modigliani and Picasso. The Moscow effort had mixed results. One of the works that was previewed in Moscow, Modigliani's Portrait du sculpteur Oscar Miestchaninoff, 1916, did sell for $30.8 million, the second-highest price achieved in the Impressionist and modern sale on November 6, but Christie's later said that the purchaser was not Russian. In fact, none of the works exhibited in Moscow were bought by Russians, says one official inside the house, although bidding by this group helped to push up prices.

Despite predictions to the contrary, the one area Russians have yet to embrace is international postwar and contemporary art. "It's an illusion, a myth, that the Russians are coming to buy international contemporary art,'' says Elena Selina, director of XL Gallery, in Moscow, the only Russian exhibitor at the Frieze Art Fair in London last October. "There weren't many Russians at Frieze, and only a few bought." Among those few was Igor Markin, whose extensive holdings of Russian postwar works are housed in the recently opened Art4.Ru museum in Moscow. Markin took home a small photo piece by Matthew Barney-his first purchase of a work by an international contemporary artist. "I plan to buy non-Russian art but only in the area of $10,000 to $100,000 per work," he says. "Maybe I'll eventually gather a full-fledged collection and then exhibit it together with my Russian contemporary art."

Others in the region who collect new art have been spending conservatively. Moscow construction magnate Vladimir Seminikhin has purchased pieces by such American Pop artists as James Rosenquist and Tom Wesselmann but says he won't lay out more than $300,000 for one.

"I have a few dozen buyers who pay over $100,000 for a work, but overall not many Russians buy international contemporary art," Garry Tatintsian reports from his Moscow gallery. "The contemporary market in Russia is not as vibrant as it is in the West, but it's developing. When I started two years ago, there was a lot of hostility toward contemporary art, but now people are more open to it."

It could be a slow awakening. At a press conference, a Sotheby's spokesperson stated that no Russian buyers had participated in the firm's postwar and contemporary sale in London last October. And while conceding that those who buy through European and American dealers don't always show up in auction houses' final tallies as "Russian," Mikhail Kamensky, general director of Sotheby's in Russia, says he's convinced that the Russian presence in the international market has been exaggerated. "About 80 percent of the Russian art market will always be about Russian art," he says. "They are still mostly buying Russian art, and this is normal for any country to spend more on national art."

In what he characterized as "testing the waters" of the Russian market, New York dealer Larry Gagosian held a two-week group show in an elite Moscow suburb last October and featured about 40 Western works, including paintings on canvas by Glenn Brown and Christopher Wool, a sculpture by Tom Friedman and a Cy Twombly drawing. Gagosian's staff claimed that two-thirds of the items sold, with prices ranging from $1 million to $5 million. But several who saw the show declare the selections less than impressive. "If Gagosian wants to conquer Russia's contemporary-art market, he will have to bring much better works," says one local collector.

The most significant collector of international contemporary art in the former Soviet Union is the Ukrainian billionaire Victor Pinchuk. In September 2006 he opened his own museum, the Pinchuk Art Center, in Kiev, and then set off on a shopping spree in the West. This past October he showed off his latest purchases, which include seven works by Damien Hirst, two paintings by Jeff Koons and six photographs by Andreas Gursky. All three artists attended the opening, as did Gagosian. "We plan to make Kiev a really important international destination for contemporary art," Pinchuk says, adding that exposure to these works "will help modernize society, especially for the young generation."

Back in Moscow, the Triumf Gallery has adopted a similarly forward-looking approach. Over the past 15 months owner Emelyan Zakharov has organized exhibitions of Damien Hirst and the Chapman brothers. Ruth Addison, the gallery's business partner in London, says that Triumf's ambitious program merely "reflects what the market wants" and that Russians are curious to learn what the contemporary-art scene is all about.

The auction houses seem content to wait for them to acquire that knowledge. "It's still too early for postwar and contemporary, but we will soon see a move to this," says Ellen Berkeley, head of business development at Christie's. "The growth has been extraordinary, and they're moving into all areas. Don't underestimate how important Russian buyers are for us."

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