Home to more billionaires than New York or London and with a thirst for art to match, Moscow is turning into a key pre-sale destination for auction houses with world masters on their hands.
London-based Christie’s and its US counterpart Sotheby’s first descended on Russia in the 1990s as interest in post-Soviet kitsch soared.
However, Sotheby’s did not open its first dedicated office in the glitzy, but risky and bureaucratic capital, until 2007, while Christie’s waited for the global financial crisis to blow over before following suit in 2010.
Yet unlike most Western capitals, Russia’s holds an unparalleled concentration of the country’s super-rich, with the 78 Moscow billionaires last counted by Forbes magazine, worth a combined US$334 billion.
The money has grown so big — and the will to splash it around so prevalent — that the auction houses are now swallowing the costs -involved in bringing their latest Dutch masters to Moscow for viewings ahead of auctions in London and New York.
“There is money in Moscow, that’s why Christie’s and Sotheby’s are putting in so much effort,” Russian Institute of Art and Antiques Business director Irina Kolosova said.
In the middle of this month, Christie’s held a three-day viewing in an historic mansion that included works by Rembrandt, the contemporary British artist Damien Hirst and the Russian painter Pyotr Konchalovsky.
On Tuesday last week, Sotheby’s sold a painting by Ivan Aivazovsky — the perennially popular 19th century Russian seascape master — for a record ￡3.2 million (US$5.2 million) after showcasing it in Moscow last year.
“We see Russian collectors participating in 8 percent to 10 percent of our global turnover,” spending as much as US$5.7 billion on art last year, Christie’s Russia director Matthew Stephenson said.
Russians’ interest in the world’s most expensive paintings seemed to catch fire when oil prices first took off nearly a decade ago, flooding Moscow with petrodollars and displays of extravagant wealth.
“We really saw a surge in our sales [to Russians] after 2004, primarily of Russian art,” a phenomenon that helped return many masterpieces to their native country from all over the world, Stephenson said.
However, Russian buyers are also showing a “rising interest in other regions, other cultures and works by foreign artists,” he added.
The tastes of Russia’s wealthy now seems to gravitate toward whatever is more expensive, one art collector said, with interest in minor artists dwindling at times when spenders have to tighten their belts slightly.
“Russian collectors buy it all. That’s not to say whatever is out there, but all of the best,” collector Alexei Ustinov said. “That includes Western paintings as well as the great masters of Russian art.”
Many view art as a great investment, particularly with the price gyrations experienced by Russia’s commodity exports over the past 10 years, he added.
“On average, art increases in price by 15 percent to 20 percent a year,” Ustinov said. “That is not very likely to happen on any stock market or with any other type of investment.”
In a sign of the market picking up, Russian houses are also starting to auction off art for eyebrow-raising prices, although the volume of their sales is still comparatively modest, Kolosova said.
Moscow’s Leonid Shishkin Gallery made headlines a year ago when it sold a Konchalovsky for 20.9 million rubles (US$615,700).