As the price of crude rises, so does Russian wealth — and they’re spending it on art at the London sales, says Ivan Lindsay
THE RECENT ROUND of London art auctions confirmed the strengthening art market and were notable for the reappearance of the Russians, who have been absent for the past two years. Sotheby’s and Christie’s brought in a combined $495 million for their evening and day sales of Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary art, with Sotheby’s adding an extra $150.6m from the George Kostalitz collection and Christie’s $37.5m from a stand-alone sale of Surrealist art.
During the credit crunch the Russians, who had borrowed heavily against their shares in the bull market, suffered from margin calls after the collapse of the Russian stock market. Faced also with falling commodity prices, they retreated from the London art and property markets. Now they have returned stronger than before and Kroll is busy doing credit checks on a new generation who have arrived in London with deep pockets.
At the art sales the Russians won many of the top lots, including Bonnard’s 1923 Terrasse à Vernon at £7.2 million (bottom), Van Dongen’s portrait of the actress Lili Damita (c. 1926) at £3 million (below), and Magritte’s thoughtful 1941 nude L’Aimant at £4.7 million. They were also in the bidding for the 1912 Les Arbres en Fleurs by Natalia Goncharova and were definitely bidding and believed to have been successful on the top lot at Sotheby’s, Picasso’s 1932 Portrait of His Mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter, which went for £25.2 million.
Survival in post-Soviet Russia requires a keen instinct for detecting artifice, and the Russians were conspicuously absent from the Contemporary sales, preferring artists with substantial track records of value. The Contemporary market has made only a partial recovery from its 70 per cent drop in value, and to the Russians, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s childlike scribbling reminds them of childlike scribbling, Jeff Koons’s vacuum cleaners look like something they could buy from a hardware store and his inflatable dolls look like, well, inflatable dolls.
THEY ARE NOT the only ones cautious of this market, and Souren Melikian, writing in the International Herald Tribune, observed after the recent sales: ‘For the moment, contemporary art is on a roll… The day one of the pundits discovers that the king has no clothes on, all the glib talk of marketing teams telling investors how savvy they are will not prevent tens of millions from melting like butter in the sun.’
The Russians also carried off several Bacons, including the 1964 Triptych Three Studies for a Portrait of Lucian Freud at £23 million. Bacon has been sizzling in general recently, although the artist himself had long periods in his career when he struggled, writing to his dealer in the 1950s, ‘Is it possible to make me a small advance? I am quite broke and canvas and paints are terribly expensive… If I can’t sell anything… I will get a job as a valet or cook.’
‘Baconski’ has become popular with the Russians since Roman Abramovich bought his 1976 Triptych in May 2008. Abramovich, often a trendsetter in oligarch circles, had never been known to show any interest in art before the arrival of his current girlfriend, the svelte and glossy Dasha Zhukova, daughter of Alexander Radkin Zhukov, the oil magnate and arms dealer. Dasha explained to Abramovich that she wasn’t that impressed with Chelski, that football was boring and that buying some art would be a sound investment and good for his reputation.
Abramovich, showing an intuition that has taken him from selling plastic ducks out of a grim Moscow apartment to one of Russia’s leading businessmen, rang up Sotheby’s and asked which of its upcoming paintings were the most expensive. In its next sale he bought the Bacon Triptych for $86.3 million and Lucian Freud’s Benefits Supervisor Sleeping for $33.6 million.
Abramovich has close ties to Vladimir Putin, who also makes sporadic but spectacular forays into the art market. Putin has nearly completed construction of his vast French Renaissance palace on the Black Sea, which The Moscow Times alleges has already cost over $1 billion.
In Russia many think Putin is their richest man, and the recently released WikiLeaks cables show that US diplomats believe he is a beneficiary of the Amsterdam-based crude-oil trading company Gunvor. Gunvor (meaning ‘careful in fighting’ in Old Norse) is the fourth largest crude-oil trader in the world, turning over $70 billion in 2007, and handles 30–40 per cent of Rosneft’s oil production (the Russian oil producer that is majority-owned by the Russian government).
In a cable published by WikiLeaks, John Beyrle, the United States ambassador to the Russian Federation, said that Gunvor’s ‘secretive ownership is rumored to include Prime Minister Putin’, an allegation firmly denied by Gunvor.
Picasso – Portrait of His Mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter (1932)
Putin doesn’t often buy art himself but ‘encourages’ others to buy it from time to time. For example, in 2007, 450 art objects, including paintings by artists such as Nikolay Roerich, Ilya Repin and Boris Grigoriev, owned by the late cellist Mstislav Rostropovich were to be sold by Rostropovich’s wife at Sotheby’s.
Reputedly a copy of the catalogue arrived on Putin’s desk a week before the sale and he put in a call to Alisher Usmanov, the Uzbek businessman reckoned by Forbes to be worth $19 billion, a shareholder in Arsenal FC and owner of John Paul Getty’s old mansion Sutton Place, near Guildford. Usmanov, known as the hard man of Russian business (presumably a title not bestowed lightly), survived seven years in an Uzbek labour camp after a conviction for ‘bribes and extortion’ — charges he has always denied.
Usmanov pre-empted the sale, which was then cancelled, with a bid of $72 million and said: ‘I want to return it to the country where it belongs, so I have donated it to the state.’ The collection now resides in the Konstantin Palace in St Petersburg, where Putin likes to entertain. Mikhail Shvydkoi, head of Russia’s federal cultural agency, said at the time that the Russian state had wanted to bestow some official honours on Usmanov but he had modestly declined.
NOR HAVE THE Russians been slouches in the property market. Asad Meerza, the private property broker who specialises in Mayfair and Belgravia and currently has four houses in Belgrave Square and several of the better-known Mayfair hotels on his books, says: ‘In the last couple of years the top families from the Middle East, like the royal families from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, have dominated this market, but in the last six months the Russians have re-entered the bidding and won several landmark buildings.’
A Russian is among the bidders for the 1.3-acre, £150 million Piccadilly Estate, which overlooks Green Park and includes the old home of Lord Palmerstone at 100 Piccadilly, which for many years was the Naval and Military Club and is better known as the ‘In and Out’.
The recent unrest in the Middle East has only intensified the flow of Russian money arriving in London, and President Dmitry Medvedev has said: ‘The latest revolts in the Arab world were instigated by outside forces that were also scheming to topple the authorities in Russia.’ (Those pesky ‘dark forces’ at work again.) Russia is no stranger to revolution, and Putin and Medvedev control the world’s largest country with an iron grip.
While it is easy to criticise Russia’s many faults, people in the West forget that Russia stretches from Europe to China and incorporates a plethora of peoples, cultures and religions. Even Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet leader, has been critical recently, saying, ‘We have democratic institutions, but they aren’t effective; they’re used to cover arbitrary rule, abuse. Society has been broken, it’s accepted the falsehoods.’ However, others point out that Putin believes, probably rightly, as did those before him such as the Tsars, Lenin, Stalin and Khrushchev, that to relax control would result in violent confrontations and a slide into civil war.
Although a third of Russians in a recent poll said they could see the possibility of violent protest ahead, some also admitted wryly that Russians tend only to work when there is someone around with a stick, while others pointed to the Russian expression which loosely translates as: ‘Russians tend to make the sign of the cross only after they get struck by lightning.’ Certainly on the streets of Moscow recently there didn’t seem to be much sign of political unrest, and it is hard to see anyone worrying about anything much other than surviving in temperatures that hit minus 30 as a front swept in from Siberia.
A headline on the front page of The Moscow Times read: ‘Russians in Britain enjoy stability and sea air,’ and went on to describe how there are now five Russian-language newspapers published in London and an estimated 500,000 Russians living in England, with the majority of the poorer immigrants working in hospitality and construction. The attraction of England, and London in particular, seems only to be increasing for Russians of all income groups, and the auction rooms and property dealers would be well advised to keep taking on Russian speakers for the foreseeable future.
Van Dongen and Bonnard courtesy of Christie’s; Picasso courtesy of Sotheby’s