It was nice to be under the radar when this field wasn't fashionable," says Christie's head of Russian art, Alexis de Tiesenhausen, ticking off his stops from Omaha to Tokyo to Sydney in search of consignments. "In the past five to seven years the market has exploded."
In 2000 Christie's and Sotheby's Russian art sales—held in London, Amsterdam, and New York—totaled $14.6 million. Last year the auctions took in $215 million, thanks to all those freshly minted billionaires from former Soviet republics. "Russian collectors feel a close connection to their cultural heritage," says Joanna Vickery, head of Russian art at Sotheby's, "and they're looking to repatriate pieces that mean something to them."
So what do they covet most? We asked these two longtime specialists.
Art "Russian collectors like figurative works they can understand," says Vickery, noting that paintings by the Jack of Diamonds group, active between 1909 and the revolution, are highly sought after. "You get the Western influence—Fauve art and German Expressionism—but the Russian subject matter also comes through." In 2005 Sotheby's sold a still life of flowers by Ilya Ivanovich Mashkov, one of the group's leaders, for $4.3 million.
Huge sums are also being paid for works by Konstantin Somovc. Some may dismiss him as a painter of kitsch, but last November his 1922 Pastorale Russe sold for $5.2 million, only to be topped in June by The Rainbow, from 1927, which fetched $7.4 million: the highest price ever in a Russian sale. "Most Russians like what they remember seeing at museums when they were young," says Tiesenhausen, who sold both Somovs. "This is the image they have of their national art."
Porcelain "Prices went crazy for Russian porcelain about four years ago," says Vickery, "especially pieces from the period of Nicholas I—1825 to 1855—the heyday of imperial porcelain manufacturing." Large palace vases, most commissioned by the czar as gifts, have seen a tenfold increase in prices over the past five years. They were often painted with copies of Old Masters or military scenes, such as those on the brilliant green pair Sotheby's sold for $4.6 million last November. "It's big, flashy, lots of gold," Tiesenhausen says. "It's a sign of wealth."
Faberge Though it was long the core of the Russian market, Fabergé didn't attract high-end Russian buyers until some years ago, around the time Viktor Vekselberg purchased the Forbes's Fabergé collection for more than $90 million. Vickery says collectors are most interested in major iconic pieces: carved hard-stone animals and intricate enameled works such as Fabergé clocks. "They're fantastic objects to display, which isn't so true of some Fabergé pieces, like cigarette cases," Vickery says. "It's become a collector's sport."
What's Next? In February Sotheby's held the first sale dedicated to modern and contemporary Russian art, mostly Nonconformist works from the sixties through the eighties. It took in a modest $5.1 million but saw a number of artist records broken, including $403,000 for Erik Bulatov's 1988 oil painting Revolution-Perestroika. "This was a big step," says Vickery. "Until recently Russian clients had looked mostly at traditional areas."
Tiesenhausen sees potential in the more distant past—18th-century portraits. In April he sold a painting of Emperor Paul I, attributed to Dimitrii Grigorevich Levitskii, perhaps the finest Russian painter of the 1800s. It went for $96,000, below the estimate. "These just aren't collected at the moment," he says. "I believe it's an area that is going to take off."