Bonhams’ sale in November opens with a bunch of lacklustre Russian hallway pictures from the lower end of the market…. nothing to e-mail home about. Who the hell needs them? BI’s galore are in the offing!
Take two girl pictures by the inevitable Harlamoff. How many of these goddamn girls are out there? I’m sick and tired of them. The first, in Contemplation (lot 11), comes with an estimate of £20,000-30,000. She looks understandably glum, Harlamoff’s girls no matter what age never smile or exhibit any emotions. The second is a pasty-faced Young Girl with a Bunch of Marguerites (lot 20) whose estimate is £30,000-40,000, presumably because size matters in this case too. This girl is often on the market. I’d love someone to fall in love with her and take her away once and for all, somewhere like Turkmenistan.
In my Christie’s preview I discussed girls without clothes, specifically those portrayed in pastel by Serebriakova – and how they strike me as over-priced compared to the erotic damsels of Lev Chistovsky. Lo and behold, Bonhams have a watercolour Chistovsky Reclining Nude (lot 30). I’ve seen bigger and better Chistovskys – this one’s just 15 x 21in – but Hell, for a sexy pretty bird girl showing her tits, a £5,000 low-estimate can’t be bad when not dissimilar Serebriakovas go for a hundred times that amount!
Just two of Bonham’s ninety pictures come with estimates of over £50,000. One is an indescribably ugly Still Life with Fish and Flowers signed, in absurdly large script, M. Larionov 1909 (lot 25). Why Larionov would have wanted to sign this messy, unfinished daub beats me. If anyone wants to match the £70,000-80,000 estimate, good luck to them.
The second biggish potential seller has more to interest collectors: a mandylion icon by Nesterov showing the miraculous image of Christ. It’s small (10½ x 10in) and, alas, comes with no real provenance (just airy talk of being ‘acquired by a noble European family’ in 1960s Russia). It has a narrow silver frame that Bonhams imaginatively term ‘Art Nouveau’ – surmising it ‘may very well have been created for this work’ – and comes with an estimate £80,000-120,000.
The icon is based on a mosaic Nesterov designed for the church façade at the Marfo-Mariinsky Convent in Moscow, built in 1909 for the Tsarina’s older sister Elisabeth (who was married to the Tsar’s brother Grand Duke Serge). Bonhams claim Nesterov made ‘many smaller compositions after his more renowned church works’ as gifts, or to flog. That’s as maybe – was this one of them? That may be wishful thinking, I reckon – despite a flourishing Мих. Нестеров (Mick Nesterov) signature bottom right, so large it is partly obscured by the frame.
The other eye-catching icon comes towards the end of the sale (lot 178): a stunning, early 20th century icon of the Archangel Michael from the Moscow workshop of Alexei Vashurov. The estimate reads £5,000-7,000. I covet it myself at that sort of price, but expect bidders to go to war over it. Anyone wishing to know more about Vashurov (Bonhams didn’t even know his Christian name) can access a 70-minute lecture about him on you-tube, delivered this Summer (in Russian) by Natalya Komashko, curator of the Andrei Rublev Museum in Moscow.
Bonhams list, as a previous owner of the icon, Princess Irina Obolensky (1917-96), daughter of Sergei Obolensky (1879-1960) – whose family moved to England from Russia in 1918. Irina’s elder brother was the dashing winger Alexander Obolensky, whose two tries for England against the All Blacks at Twickenham in 1936 will be talked about for as long as rugby is played.
WORKS OF ART
Pick of the Fabergé are two Wigström clocks. The first is a charming, square clock that would enhance any collection (lot 106), though I am sure we have seen it recently a few times (est. £80,000-120,000). The second is a small, stylish, understated clock in the form of a nephrite column set with a circular dial enamelled in opalescent oyster white (lot 111, est. £60,000-80,000). Silver collectors will focus on a large Fabergé silver kovsh (Moscow, 1896-1908), a decent piece fronted by a bearded Viking (lot 128).
The two star enamel lots are an Eleventh Artel casket on four bracket feet, with an enamel plaque to the lid depicting a troika in the snow (lot 117,est. £20,000-30,000); and a rather attractive, complete tea/coffee-service by Pavel Ovchinnikov (lot 119) of unusual design – decorated in shaded enamel and featuring subjects from mythology and Russian folklore. I fear, however, that the £60,000-80,000 estimate may be a bit too steep.
The porcelain features two vases of similar date but different size and valuation. First comes an 1829 Imperial Porcelain vase (lot 144), just under 2ft tall, whose £20,000-30,000 estimate looks surprisingly low if it’s in good condition. It would doubtless have been higher if Bonham’s had been able to identify the painting on the front – cluelessly reporting it as a ‘maiden with a lap dog’ (the maiden is simultaneously flaunting her right breast). Any half-decent art historian can see that the saucy siren derives from Jean-Baptiste Greuze – to be precise, from his Young Girl with a Dog on her Lap. This small work sold for $153,000 in New York in 2004 at Christie’s – who gave its earliest known provenance as Prince Trubetskoy, St Petersburg c.1839 (albeit without specifying if this was the Prince Trubetskoy of Decembrist fame).
Next lot up is a 1830 Gardner vase, whose £100,000-120,000 estimate seems outlandish in comparison, even if it’s six inches taller. It has large painted scenes front and back, about which Bonhams again fail to provide any meaningful information. The crazy estimate (for a piece from the mid-ranking Gardner factory) must be because the consignor paid £103,250 for it at Christie’s in 2009, when market circumstances were somewhat different.
Bonham’s real porcelain star is a quirky Reds v. Whites chess set (lot 164) designed by Natalia Danko in 1933/4 for the State Porcelain Factory in Leningrad (as the Imperial Porcelain Factory became). The pieces take propaganda to another plane: the White King is designed as Death, the White Pawns as Chained Serfs; the Red King is a Blacksmith with a giant hammer, the Pawns are Peasants with silver sickles. The set has an excellent provenance to boot – it was owned by the Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist Edgar Ansel Mowrer (1892-1977), and presumably acquired during his month-long visit to Russia in 1936. The estimate is a very reasonable £25,000-35,000.