Since the credit crunch, Russian art sales totals have plummeted – which is not to say that the value of Russian art has gone down necessarily. One of the top sellers last week, an imposing 1923 painting of a merchant’s wife by Boris Kustodiev, which had fetched £73,000 at Sotheby’s 13 years ago, sold for £1.8 million at MacDougall’s auction. The problem lies more with the supply of the most valuable art.
If you read the reports of Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary art sales, you see that Russian or former Soviet state buyers play a major role in these international markets, so when it comes to the Russian art sales, which are more nationalistic in content and appeal, there is a less concentrated pool of local buyers than there is, say, for Indian or Chinese art. And those who were buying last week, far from indulging in the modern or cutting edge, displayed much more conservative tendencies, demonstrating a fondness for the historical, the literary and theatrical, usually associated with the glory of Russia’s past. As Jo Vickery, of Sotheby’s, put it, “Buyers were less affected by the economics of the eurozone than by Russian politics. Those who are close to Putin have more classical taste.”