Russian Art Auction Totals $36.1 Million at Sotheby's (Update2)

By John Varoli

April 15 (Bloomberg) -- Sotheby's sold about $36.1 million of Russian 19th-and 20th-century art today in New York, a signal that rich Russians and Ukrainians will pay top dollar for artworks of cultural significance.

About 69 percent of the 191 pre-World War II lots in the morning session sold, and six paintings fetched more than $1 million each. In the afternoon session, about 52 percent of the 130 postwar artworks sold.

Russia's economy has grown for nine consecutive years, creating a pool of art collectors willing to spend lavishly. In 2007, Sotheby's reported a 24 percent rise in Russian art sales to $190.9 million. That's more than a 31-fold increase since 2000, when its annual total was $6 million.

``The Russian economy is very strong and not impacted by financial troubles elsewhere in the world,'' said Alexander Gertsman, a New York-based dealer of Russian postwar art who consigned ``several works'' at the sale.

``All big names sold high because major Russian collectors will pay big prices for top quality,'' Gertsman said. ``But those artists without established reputations, some whom I've never even heard of, not surprisingly didn't sell.''

Most buyers were Russian, followed by Ukrainians, as well as a sizable U.S. presence, said Sonya Bekkerman, Sotheby's senior vice president and head of the Russian department.

Kuindzhi Sets Record

Today's most expensive work, Arkhip Kuindzhi's ``Birch Grove'' (1881), from a New York collection, sold for $3.07 million, above the high estimate of $3 million and an auction record for the artist. Kiev dealer Sergei Tabalov battled with a telephone bidder for the painting until dropping out.

``Prices are high for the best pieces,'' said Tabalov, who later bought ``Pueblo in Santa Fe'' (1922) by Nicholas Roerich for $713,000, below its high estimate of $800,000. ``These are exceptional and unique pieces of art, and works by Kuindzhi almost never come to market.''

Ivan Aivazovsky's ``Distributing Supplies'' (1892) and ``Relief Ship'' (1892), from a U.S. collection, sold as a pair for $2.39 million, below its top estimate of $3 million. Sotheby's said the buyer was an art dealer, Joseph Friedman.

The paintings are the artist's tribute to America for its role in collecting and sending grain to starving Russian peasants in the nation's south in the winter famine of 1891-92.

Aivazovsky, Russia's greatest seascape painter, donated both paintings to the Corcoran Gallery in Washington in 1893. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy hung them in the White House from 1961 to 1964. The Corcoran sold the works in 1979.

Discovery of America

The painter's ``Arrival of Columbus' Flotilla'' (1880) sold for $1.67 million, the middle of the estimated range of $1.25 million to $2 million. The 50-by-72-inch (127-by-183 centimeter) canvas is part of Aivazovsky's series depicting Columbus's discovery of America in 1492.

Vasili Polenov's landscape ``The River Oyat'' (1883) sold from a U.S. collection for $1.39 million, topping the high estimate of $800,000. Alexei Bogoliubov's ``View of Venice'' sold for $1.05 million on a top estimate of $900,000.

Aivazovsky's undated ``Crimean View,'' from a private New York collection and estimated at $1.5 million to $2 million, didn't sell, nor did Ivan Shishkin's ``In the Woods'' (1882), estimated at $1.8 million to $2.2 million.

The afternoon session of postwar art was led by Ilya Kabakov's album of 32 drawings, ``The Flying Komarov'' (1978), which sold for $445,000, easily topping the high estimate of $250,000. The seller purchased the work directly from the artist in 1978 for an undisclosed amount.

Oscar Rabin's surrealistic urban landscape ``Socialist City'' (1959) sold for $337,000, more than double the top estimate of $160,000, and set an auction record for the artist.

The afternoon session's top presale lot, Oleg Tselkov's undated, surrealistic ``Five Faces With Hand,'' also didn't sell. It had been forecast to fetch $500,000 to $700,000.

``Some estimates were too high, and so the results of that session were uneven,'' Sotheby's Bekkerman said.

Prices include a buyer's premium, or commission, of 25 percent of the sale price up to $20,000, 20 percent of the price from $20,000 to $500,000, and 12 percent above $500,000.

(John Varoli writes for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the reporter on this story: John Varoli in New York at

Last Updated: April 15, 2008 20:01 EDT