Sotheby’s picture session gets underway at 10:30am on Tuesday 30 November with two wonderful mid-19th century watercolours of Officers and Soldiers by Karl Piratsky. Unfortunately, both have faded. They must have been hanging in a very well lit room – watercolours should ideally be preserved in an album (Lots 3,4, est. £40-60,000 each).
Next up is a pair of small, museum-quality Ayvazovsky views done in 1844: one of the Bay of Naples, the other of the Gulf of Pozzuoli just along the coast. They’re the earliest Ayvazvoskys I’ve ever seen – painted on his return to Russia after three years in Italy. They’re rare, fantastic and in superb condition (Lot 5, est. £600,000-800,000).
Petr Sokolov’s Borki Train Disaster (Lot 11) is a great-looking historical painting by a well-known artist, but I’ve no idea who would want something like this on the wall of their bedroom (or even dining-room). It shows the Tsar’s train just after it had derailed (an accident, at least officially) 20 miles south of Kharkov on 29 October 1888, en route from Sevastopol to St Petersburg. The picture is in gouache rather than oils, and belonged for God knows how many years to a New York gallery, where the asking-price (as I seem to recall) was $600,000, last time I asked – a very far cry from its £80-120,000 estimate here.
Savrasov’s The Volga near Yurevets (Lot 20, est. £800,000-1.2m) is an important, large picture (roughly 4ft x 7ft) whose exact whereabouts were unknown for over a century. Again, it’s a museum picture, not one for a private collection. The dirt of Russia, big clouds, small figures, lots of water… what the hell are we meant to be looking at? It’s boring, plus it needs a good clean. Sotheby’s call it ‘the first large-scale composition Savrasov made on the subject of the Volga river, having moved to Yaroslavl with his family in early 1870’ – yet they don’t explain why Savrasov chose to betake himself 120 miles downriver from Yaroslavl to the small town of Yurevets (where Andrei Tarkovsky grew up) before setting up his easel.
A trio of snowy Choultsé snowcapes precede a quartet of girly Harlamoffs fresh from the conveyor-belt. He churned them out in industrial quantities. Did he run a pension for pre-pubescent girls? I’ve never seen a boy by Harlamoff. What was wrong with the guy?
But Makovsky’s Odalisque (Lot 30, est. £80-120,000) is a beautiful picture. The Wanderers are hardly known for painting naked girls, so this one is rare – and wonderful.
There’s a charming 1933 Gorbatov View of Pskov (Lot 41, est. £80-120,000), a nice 1919 Kustodiev Village Fair (Lot 46, est. £200-300,000), a couple of colourful Stelletskys (Lots 47/48, est. £15-25,000) and three pretty stage designs by Sudeikin (Lots 48, 50, 51, est. £30-60,000). Then three more stage designs by an ageing Korovin that make you want to cry – the type of pictures he exchanged in Paris cafés for lunch or a jug of gros rouge (Lots 54-56, est. £15-30,000).
A well-known but boring early Petrov-Vodkin Still Life with Apples (1912) is meant to head the sale (Lot 62, est. £2.5-3.5m), but I can’t understand why anyone would spend £2½ million on this.
The £80,00-120,000 that Sotheby’s want for Serebryakova’s 1932 Moroccan Girl (Lot 114) is also wishful thinking. Punters are only really interested in sexy pictures of her naked daughter letting it all hang out.
A bunch of average auction-fillers take us to Lot 148: Stalin and Voroshilov in the Kremlin, dated 1939 and signed Gerasimov ‘only on the reverse… could have been painted by assistants’ (as Sotheby’s virtuously admit). It’s clearly a copy of the infamous 1938 Gerasimov original in the Tretyakov. Strangely enough, I’ve never seen Sotheby’s selling pictures of Hitler and Goering with the Reichstag in the background…. Why not, pray? Until June 1941 Stalin and Hitler were best buddies! Is it ‘politically correct’ to kill people by the million if you’re Russian, but not so okay if happen to be German? (Lot 148, est. £50-70,000).
Then comes a 1963 Portrait of Lenin (Lot 156, est. £6-8,000) – meaning that Sotheby’s, in this sale, are glorying two of the most evil scoundrels in Russian history, men who created a system that wrecked millions of lives, and still lingers in the world today! Who’s next in their gallery of dictators? Mussolini? Lukashenko? Pol Pot? Pol Putin?
Then come a clutch of Soviet artists no one’s ever heard of – Yablonskaya, Babentsov, Ossovsky, Matushevsky, Tikhomirov…. The only reason they’re at Sotheby’s is because they are somehow united by their national origin. Heaven knows where the estimates come from.
The session’s final 43 lots are devoted to contemporary crap. There’s a flying dog with a half-submerged car by Dmitry Shorin (Lot 215) – done in 2007 yet still ‘the property of the artist’ – i.e. he’s never been able to get rid of it. And now he wants £15,000-20,000 for it?? Then come two giant acrylic ‘portraits’ of Prince William and Kate Middleton by Alexander Klimtsov. Who the hell is he? A young kid still at school? No, the guy was born in 1980! Are his portraits funny? No, they’re shit! (Lot 223, est. £3,5-5000)
There’s one exception among the dross that actually is funny: Dubosarsky & Vinogradov’s enormous Honey, I’m Still at the Office (1996), showing a guy in a black shirt and yellow jacket with his flies undone, out in the fields flanked by a couple of nudes, mobile-phone stuck to his ear (Lot 211, est. £40-60,000). This would make a perfect Christmas present for any oligarch with one family in Moscow and a second in London: Russian Reality Today! I love it.