All auctions are the same: a few good lots – with the top ones often vastly overpriced – complemented by auction-fillers and shop-worn dealer-stock. Sotheby’s 294-lot Russian Works Of Art sale on December 2 is no exception.
My first comment, however, is not about the auction’s contents but about Sotheby’s website – which is the only place you can access the contents in current, printed-catalogue-less conditions. Hopefully, once the vaccines arrive and we’re done with Covid, the old habit of printing catalogues will be resurrected. All the collectors I have spoken to complain about not being able to keep their own catalogues, duly annotated.
Apart from inadequate photography (which I shall return to below), the website is intensely annoying to navigate. It only displays 48 lots at a time – then you reach a LOAD MORE button. If you wish to read about lots 49-96, you have to press this button. If you wish to read about lots 97 onwards, you have to press it again.
Then, once you’ve read about, say, Lot 97, and want to get back to the catalogue, you are taken back to the start of it, Lot 1 – and have to go through the LOAD MORE rigmarole again and again. You have to repeat this infuriating, time-consuming process every time you click on a lot, then go back to the catalogue. I’m sure it would not take an I.T. genius to fix this nonsense! Incidentally, Christie’s website suffers from the same defect.
In a printed catalogue, you can easily flick between lots – you often want to compare one lot with another. How are you supposed to do that on-line?
Some of Sotheby’s estimates are reasonable, some on the high side… and don’t forget the increase in Buyer’s Premium! While governments around the world were stumping up funds to help people in coronavirus need – with people going out of business left right and centre, and half the shops and boutiques on New (and Old) Bond Street papered over with For Lease signs – Sotheby’s were quietly jacking up their Buyer’s Premium by another 1%, hoping Who’s gonna notice? They even had the hypocrisy to give this new price-hike a swanky title: the Overhead Premium. Why don’t they add another 2% premium for toilet-paper while they’re about it?
When I started out in the business 45 years ago, there was no Buyer’s Premium – just 10% vendor’s commission. Today Buyer’s Premium is 26%. Sotheby’s have occupied the same London premises for the last 45 years. Their lease and rent presumably reflect market conditions. What has happened in the last 45 years? Is their rent today astronomically higher? Are their department experts so much better paid today as opposed to 45 years ago?
So please don’t forget to add on a whopping 26% to all the estimates indicated below, if you want to have a true idea of what a prospective buyer will have to fork out. And don’t forget another 5% VAT while you’re about it!
The sale starts with a hundred or so items of Fabergé – most of it entry-level Fabergé for beginners, so to speak. Nice, cute, legitimate, but no great shakes. Them boys in Texas would call these baubles purdy, some would say as cute as a bug’s ear.
Up first are ten miniature egg pendants, priced in the £8-18,000 range – all in mint condition, of great quality… a rare opportunity to buy several of these dainty items at the same time, and just the job if you’re looking for a stylish Christmas present. I expect to see a serious fight over the eggs.
A couple of Fabergé enamel desk-clocks are worth noting: an oyster-white triangular clock by Perchin, its corners set with some primordial bits of petrified flora mounted in oval diamond bezels (Lot 25, est. £80-120,000); and a silver rectangular Wigström clock (Lot 30 est. £60-80,000), with powerful, purple enamel over a moiré ground festooned with gold ornament.
Both the clocks are nice – but, with Swiss time running out, I’d switch the estimates around: Wigström’s deep purple clock smells of smoke on the water… if not quite fire in the sky.
The top Fabergé lot in pricing terms is another rectangular Wigström clock (Lot 39, est. £100,000-150,000). I looked at it. It’s not the best, but it’s fine. The blood-red and surrounding light green enamel combination is pretty unpleasant, maybe the clock’s commissioner was daltonic. It sold for £181,250 in 2011, in better times.
A large silver neo-classical pictorial cigar-box, on the other hand, will enhance any collection – museum or private (Lot 58, est. £40-60,000). The top is adorned with an en plein miniature of Vereshchagin’s famous painting Тсссъ! Пусть Подойдут, depicting white-uniformed Russian troops storming Samarkand in 1868, just before Central Asia succumbed to Tsarist diktat. Those were the days!
I also like the Fabergé heart-shaped bonbonnière (Lot 70 est. £40-60,000). I might like it even more if I could check out its hallmarks in the on-line catalogue. But not one of Sotheby’s five on-line images shows the hallmarks. What happened? Did the photographer forget about them, or are they just not there?
Photos of hallmarks may not be so important in printed catalogues, when potential buyers can travel to the viewing and inspect items in person. In current circumstances that is no longer possible – making photographs of all hallmarks absolutely essential.
A Rappaport silver Chimpanzee table-lighter (Lot 84, est. £30-50,000) is a cute, funny beast that looks like an old man with a receding hair-line. Sotheby’s provide four photos of it, including the one shown – but, as with the previous lot, no photo of the hallmarks. Why? Aren’t there any? I trust there’s no monkey business going on. Christie’s sale on November 23 had an almost identical piece – AND provided a photo of the hallmarks – yet remained unsold against an estimate of £25,000-35,000.
By the way, does anyone know how many of these little apes were produced? How many more of them are falling out from the rainforest canopy? I know of at least two other similar creatures. One of them lives in London.
I once owned Lot 85 – a Rappaport silver beaker. It’s a rare and interesting piece, albeit of no great value (est. £4-6,000). I mention it here purely because, on this occasion, Sotheby’s do indeed provide a photograph of perfectly genuine hallmarks on the base. I urge readers to compare them with the hallmarks on the silver Pheasant watering-can – supposedly by Rappaport – in Christie’s sale, which are unquestionably spurious… even though it fetched £130,000 hammer. Christie’s, watch out for a lawsuit!!!
An IPM Amphora Vase (Lot 126 est. £200-300,000) and IPM Plaque (Lot 127, est. £500-700,000) from the reign of Nikolai I are the top porcelain items in the sale.
The Vase, made for the Tsar in 1834, features a romantic landscape by Andrei Martynov after Christian Dietrich. The huge 71 x 60cm plaque shows a floral bouquet painted by factory artist Alexei Krasovsky after Johann Christian Roedig. Only two other plaques of such size are known – one in the Hermitage, the other at Kuskovo (both painted by Krasovsky’s brother Feodor). Nikolai I gifted Sotheby’s plaque to his wife’s widowed sister Alexandrine of Prussia for Christmas in 1852. It’s a stunner, and I love it to bits – but its £500,000+ price-tag makes me nauseous. I sincerely hope this porcelain jewel will find a buyer despite such a stupefying estimate.
Another piece of porcelain worthy of attention is a brightly coloured Imperial Porcelain Cup inspired by those produced in 18th century Moscow. It stands 17 inches high, its cover is topped with a gilt double-headed eagle, and it dates from 1914 (Lot 143, est. £10-15,000). The cup survived the Revolution to be bought from the Soviets for peanuts by Armand Hammer, who – claiming (not implausibly) that it had been owned by Nikolai II at Tsarskoe Selo – sold it to a Mr R. Willard in New York on 9 November 1938. The Hammer Galleries record of that transaction survives but does not, alas, indicate the price.
Lots 260-264 are devoted to late 19th century Imperial Porcelain Easter Eggs. One of the greatest collectors of such eggs was Harold Whitbeck (1931-2015) of San Francisco. I was instrumental in helping him build up his collection in the 1980s and ’90s, then in refining and enhancing it. We assembled such a nestful that Hermitage curator Tamara Kudriavtseva flew in to see it, pronouncing it larger than the one she was responsible for in St Petersburg. She and Whitbeck put together a swanky book on the subject, Russian Imperial Porcelain Easter Eggs.
Prices have changed little since those days – Sotheby’s eggs come with estimates of €4,00-8,000 apiece. The one that catches my eye is Lot 264 (below left), ‘after a model by August Spies.’ A very similar – but to my unbiased mind, somewhat better – version can be admired on my website (below right).
Competition for Imperial Porcelain eggs was fierce twenty years ago, with several keen collectors who since seem to have stopped collecting. Competition has withered. Today only rarely do you see prices above estimate, which is unfortunate – these eggs are quite rare and highly collectable. They were made mainly for the imperial family.
SILVER & ENAMEL
A gem-set, silver and cloisonné enamel Eleventh Artel Kovsh, engraved 3 October 1915 / from the Morozov family on the base, features the fairy-tale Goat with Golden Horns on one side – so it’s maybe not surprising that its price-tag descends from Cloud Cuckoo Land (Lot 188, est. £100-150,000).
Sotheby’s claim a silver candelabra centrepiece with twisted grapes bears the maker’s mark of Sazikov (St Petersburg 1850). To me, the chunky triangular base and the sinuous superstructure were born at different times and form an incongruous ensemble. The grapevine section looks too English for words – my hunch is that it was brought to Russia from London then retailed by Sazikov (Lot 205, est. £25-35,000).
An 1875 Khlebnikov silver inkwell (Lot 206, est. £30-50,000) and an 1892 Grachev silver desk-set (Lot 214, est. £40-60,000) look mightily impressive – but nobody uses inkwells these days, so why would you buy one?
Sotheby’s, like Christie’s, have a cartographic snuff-box made by Feodor Bushkovsky in Veliky Ustyug – also 9cm long, and with an identical £8-12,000 estimate. Sotheby’s box (Lot 219) is three years older, dating from 1819. Let’s hope it does better than Christie’s box, which didn’t sell.
The sale’s enamels are few and far between, and seem to come from times when these things were selling for serious money. Today even the low-estimates look high. An opulent Ovchinnikov centrepiece with blue-coloured champagne glasses (Lot 224, est. £40-60,000) is a good example.
The sale has a few nice icons worth looking at. A Kazanskaya Mother of God with the maker’s mark of Karl Sievers (St Petersburg 1864), originally retailed by our friend Sazikov, has a rare, wonderful oklad – although the throwaway icon is a mismatch (Lot 244, est. £40-60,000). A large icon of Christ Pantocrator (St Petersburg 1836), consigned from a private collection in Scotland, has a silver filigree oklad likely to arouse interest – though when I saw the actual icon in person, I was stricken with disappointment as it’s totally over-painted (Lot 248, est. £20-30,000).
Both the Mother of God Joy of All Who Sorrow, from 1720s Moscow (Lot 278, est. £25,000-35,000), and a beautiful St Elizabeth icon painted by Chirikov in Moscow in 1891 (Lot 282, est. £20-30,000), demand attention and will attract plentiful bidding.
This over-lengthy sale, though, is at times tiresome for the eyes – bunged up with average porcelain, kovshis-shmovshis, boxes-shmoxies and very average silver and crystal of the who needs that? variety. It ends with a sizable collection of nondescript bronzes – the sort we seem to see at every sale, for the simple reason that they were mass-produced.
Russian sales these days are obviously struggling to attract good material. The majority of clients are sitting in Moscow – some out of money, others struggling with Covid. They cannot come to London to view the caboodle, and Moscow is in an even worse economic situation than the West. Sotheby’s sale is brimming with nice bits, but there are only a few items of real importance – and the situation does not augur lavish spending.
Good luck to Sotheby’s and all auctioneers during this Time of Troubles.