* all prices include buyer’s premium unless otherwise indicated

Sotheby’s two-part Russian sale this June yielded £8m and was not bad at all. People don’t really want to sell at this point, given the uncertainty of the market – and from fear their merchandise won’t be viewed by travelling buyers. No one wants to shift heavy duty lots for sale right now. It was easy enough for me to go and look at the stuff, being based in London – but there was no Russian Week, no pre-sale party, and most buyers from Russia couldn’t come. In the circumstances what happened was better than expected.

Sotheby’s Russian Works of Art (June 9-17) totalled a premium-inclusive £2.4m – up nearly 20% on the same sale in June 2019. I’d like to pay tribute here to Helen Culver Smith, Sotheby’s American-born International Head of Russian Works of Art, for being gutsy enough to put a sale together in the lockdown period – with lots of staff furloughed or made redundant. And for managing to keep to the traditional early June scheduling (Christie’s auction does not start till late July)! That was some effort, especially as Helen – who joined Sotheby’s last year after a decade at Christie’s – has two young children, and was working from home.

FABERGÉ

Russian Works of Art (June 9-17) totalled a premium-inclusive £2.4m – up nearly 20% on the same sale in June 2019. The uncontested star was a very rare, very interesting Fabergé icon of Christ Pantokrator, 12¼ x 10½in, that took £375,000 – a high-end museum piece in fantastic condition, as I could see when I held it in my hands. And it had a serious provenance – owned by Russian tea merchant Nikon Molchanov since 1916 and consigned by his family (who fled to Canada via Harbin, and now live on the East Coast of the U.S.) 

A rare and important Fabergé gem-set silver and en plein enamel icon of Christ Pantokrator, Moscow, 1908-1917

There were half-a-dozen bidders, and the price is a new auction record for a Fabergé icon, ahead of a Virgin & Child icon that made £245,000 (again at Sotheby’s London) on 7 June 2016. Both are absolutely fabulous icons – I’ve never seen better quality Fabergé icons on the market.

A Fabergé jewelled silver, enamel and seed-pearl icon of the Pelagonitissa Mother of God, Moscow, 1908-1917

Otherwise, the 90-odd lots of Fabergé were the usual offering of bits and pieces – a lot of things from the trade, what you might call shop-worn merchandise. Some cute pieces, but nothing to write home about. A very nice picture-frame by Henrik Wigström in three-colour gold doubled low-estimate at £40,000. A silver-gilt and guilloché lilac enamel clock by Wigström – beautiful, with very subtle colouring – sold at top-estimate for £60,000, but I’m sure it would have done better if it had been seen and handled by more people. 

A Fabergé silver-gilt and guilloché enamel clock, workmaster Henrik Wigström, St Petersburg, 1908-1917

A silver-gilt and enamel frame by Mikhail Perchin (est. £20-30,000) failed to sell, having been on a commercial website in the U.S. for about ten years. It was bought at Sotheby’s in the 1990s by a London dealer friend of mine, who sold it to me a year later – after adding a gold bow to the top. Unfortunately this bow is of less than stellar quality, and I couldn’t sell the thing. Then my wife absconded with the frame and flogged it to an American dealer, who couldn’t sell it either despite years of trying.

I was the underbidder on a Fabergé silver caviar dish in the form of a fish that landed £11,250, double top-estimate. A gold and champlevé enamel egg pendant cleared £22,500, five times estimate. These pendants typically sell very well – a blue enamel one got up to £15,000 – but most sold on reserve or within the estimate-band. 

GLASS, ENAMEL & SILVER

The usual cross-section of Russian glass and enamels all went for low-estimate, if they sold at all. Russian silver didn’t do very well either. A six-piece tea- and coffee-service by Sazikov (1861/2), estimate £50-70,000, went nowhere – a few years ago it would have flown away. A set with teapot, kettle and sugar-bowl by Kemper and Wakeva (1891-93) also failed (est. £4-6,000) – it looked too Western and too boring. Yet the previous lot, a real Plain Jane samovar by Grachev (St Petersburg 1893), zoomed to £20,000, over double top-estimate. People love samovars! A very attractive, large, neo-rococo mirror (4ft tall) made in St Petersburg in 1846 – not the sort of thing you find every day – sold pretty well at £22,500. It was topped by the Yusupov coat-of-arms. 

PORCELAIN

Porcelain did a little better than expected. Two very, very rare plates from the Yusupov factory at Arkhangelskoye (1829) made £40,000 (est. £10-15,000), and there were surprising results for some pretty Kornilov plates illustrated with Russian fairy-tales after Ivan Bilibin – a double-estimate £75,000 for a dozen plates in all (£6250 a plate). But the £40,000 paid for an 1833 Imperial Porcelain plate featuring a Junker of the Caucasus Life-Guards was a wishy-washy sort of price – these things used to clear £100,000. Lots of collectors of these items have left the market. 

A group of six porcelain plates, Kornilov brothers porcelain factory, St Petersburg, 1884-1917

A plate from the Orlov Service from the 1760s sold for £24,000 hammer, which must have been the reserve. These plates are very, very rare, and also used to sell for £100,000. This one just squeaked through – like a plate form Gardner’s late 18th century Order of St George Service at £5625, or a couple of Imperial Porcelain plates from the Order of Alexander Nevsky Service (1855-81) that sold together for the same underwhelming price. Three lots from Nicholas I’s Coronation Service sold pretty well, though: two plates for £27,500 each, and a serving-dish for the same sum. An Imperial Porcelain vase from the same period (made in 1828), quite large at nearly 2 feet high, barely sold on estimate at £32,500. Vases like this used to sell for multiple high-estimate! And a late 18th century basket from Gardner’s St Vladimir Service went unsold – baskets used to be flying out of the door for at least double-estimate!

There were seven lots devoted to porcelain Easter eggs. These  eggs used to go for several thousand pounds apiece,  but the ones here put in a very poor performance. The lots that did sell struggled to make estimate. 

Soviet porcelain, however, typically sells very well. A good example was a 1920 plate featuring the word KOMMUNA (Commune) in stylized Cyrillic lettering that fetched £43,750, triple its high-estimate.

ICONS

I was surprised that an icon painted on copper by Pavel Ovchinnikov (Moscow 1909) came with the same estimate (£60-80,000) as the Fabergé icon mentioned earlier. It was very mundane, very simple; the quality was nothing like the same. I wouldn’t have considered buying it at any price, yet it sold for £68,750 – I guess because it featured the Martyr St Alexandra and was bought as a gift for a lady of that name. Russians often buy icons that way. I’ll bet that the late 19th century icon of Alexander Nevsky painted by Feodor Platonov, that soared to £56,250 (nearly triple-estimate), was bought as a fancy birthday present for some important Sasha.

A silver icon of saint Alexander Nevsky, painted by Feodor Platonov, the oklad by Grachev, St Petersburg, 1890

Three mass-produced enamel icons came with estimates of around £18,000 that I thought very high, but they sold for significant amounts – led by an 1865 Kazanskaya Mother of God at £22,500.

BRONZES

There was nothing rare about the sale’s nine bronze sculptures – these things are on the market all the time. Just three sold.

PICTURES

Sotheby’s sale of Russian Pictures (May 25–June 2) totalled £5.6 million with 57% of lots reaching or surpassing high-estimate and buyers reported from 26 countries, nearly 20% of them buying Russian pictures for the first time. So it was, on the whole, more of a success than expected under the circumstances.

Two-fifths of the sale total came from Aivazovsky’s giant view of a Bay of Naples sunrise over Vesuvius (1878) at a double-estimate £2.3 million – the costliest work ever sold in an on-line sale, claim Sotheby’s. This was last on the market twelve years ago, consigned to Koller in Zurich by a German family who traded in Tsarist Russia. It sold in 2008 for CHF 2 million – then worth £985,000 (Sterling has declined 40% against the Swiss Franc since then).

Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky, The bay of Naples

Pretty works by Shishkin, Choultsé, Bogdanov-Belsky and Serebriakova all sold well at the start of the sale, along with another  Aivazovsky – Passing Ship on a Moonlit Night (1868) at a double-estimate £435,000.

Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky, Passing ship on a moonlit night

With a handful of exceptions, the Socialist Realist and Contemporary stuff did OK, nothing more. Vladimir Stozharov’s Autumn – Invshino (1956) attracted six bidders en route to £60,000 – seven times top-estimate – and Igor Obrosov’s 1974 Portrait of the Actress O.S. cavorted to £75,000, ten times estimate. If Sotheby’s had found out just who the lady was, I reckon she’d have kicked higher still.

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