Russian mega-collectors are now excluded from the art market. But their influence was waning long before the war

The Art Detective is a weekly column by Katya Kazakina for Artnet News Pro that lifts the curtain on what is really current on the art market.

Art collector Igor Tsukanov’s foundation has been working on a retrospective of Russian non-conformist artist Oleg Tselkov in Moscow for three years. After a delay induced by the pandemic and the death of the artist, at 87, in July, the opening was finally set for March 1 at the Museum of Modern Art in Moscow. Six days before the debut, Russia invaded Ukraine.

In the weeks that followed, bombs rained down on kyiv and the world came together to cut off Russia, its financial institutions and its oligarchs. In Moscow, private museums have closed their doors. Many cultural elites fled abroad, fearing persecution.

Despite Russia’s growing isolation, “Oleg Tselkov: Stranger” has opened, with 100 paintings from 25 international private collections arriving by air from New York and Florida and by truck from Europe. Tselkov, a pioneer of unofficial Soviet art, has a large following in Russia and abroad. In December, his boy with balloons (1957) broke a record $760,612 at Sotheby’s.

Although very crowded, the opening did not feel celebratory, Tsukanov said. A Ukrainian American couple, who lent two paintings to the exhibition, asked to remove them in protest against the war. (They eventually agreed to keep the paintings but withdrew their names.) Some guests cried.

“People understood that this would be the last opening for a while,” Tsukanov told me this week from his home in London.

Collector Igor Tsukanov at the opening of “Oleg Tselkov: Stranger” at the Museum of Modern Art in Moscow. Courtesy: Igor Tsukanov.

A new reality

As the war in Ukraine entered its fourth week, Tsukanov dealt with a new reality. A former banker with dual British and Russian nationality, he saw his European bank accounts restricted overnight when he was not sanctioned. A major promoter of Russian art, he won’t be holding exhibitions in London anytime soon, Tsukanov told a group of art market executives at a “brainstorming” event organized by the Christie’s Russian Art Department last week.

Some of Tsukanov’s compatriots are in a much more difficult situation. Among the Russian billionaires sanctioned by the United States or the United Kingdom are several of the biggest collectors in the world: Roman Abramovich, Petr Aven and Andrey Melnichenko. They officially cannot buy or sell artwork, and auction houses have said they do not do business with sanctioned individuals.

The trade in Russian art also became much more difficult. Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Bonhams have canceled their upcoming Russian art auctions in London, the epicenter of the sector.

“Right now, everything is on hold,” said Jo Vickery, co-founder of Vickery ArtLondon-based adviser and former International Director of Russian Art at Sotheby’s.

A major market force in the early 2000s, Russian millionaires and billionaires set records for everything from Fabergé to Freud, flocked to Art Basel Miami Beach and joined the boards of major museums. such as Guggenheim and Tate.

Christie's employees pose in front of Leonardo da Vinci's Salvator Mundi before its sale at Christie's New York on November 15, 2017. Photo: Tolga Akmena/AFP/Getty Images.

Christie’s employees pose in front of Leonardo da Vinci Salvator Mundi before its sale at Christie’s New York on November 15, 2017. Photo: Tolga Akmena/AFP/Getty Images.

Dmitry Rybolovlev, an unsanctioned Russian billionaire, spent an estimated $2 billion on prime art between 2003 and 2014, paying exorbitant sums for works by Gauguin, Klimt and Rodin. While he has since sold many works at a loss, one of them exceeded all expectations in 2017: Leonardo da Vinci Salvator Mundiwhich fetched $450 million, the most expensive artwork of all time.

The influence of Russian collectors waned after the financial crisis and the first round of sanctions following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Things started to change in 2018 when a new generation of collectors s is focused on contemporary Russian art. Annual sales at vladeya Moscow-based auction house that cultivates this audience, went from 500,000 euros in 2013 to 6 million euros in 2021. Then the war started.

“People are dying,” said a Russian-born, US-based art collector. “Who can think of art?

Fear of repression is widespread among elites as Vladimir Putin’s regime becomes increasingly authoritarian, shutting down independent media, outlawing the word “war” and banning social media platforms like Instagram. This week, Putin called for the “self-cleaning” of traitors who make money in Russia but live in the West and are poisoned by Western values.

The Russian art market “will undoubtedly experience a period of transformational change, the extent of which will depend on whether Russia is isolated in the future,” Vickery said. “The impact on the contemporary art market will be minimal. Today, there are buyers all over the world, in Asia, America, Europe, all competing. »

Sotheby's Russian Pictures and Russian Art auction at Sotheby's on June 1, 2018 in London, England.  (Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Sotheby's)

Sotheby’s Russian Pictures and Russian Art auction at Sotheby’s on June 1, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Sotheby’s)

Admittedly, the Russian art market is a drop in the ocean. Experts estimate it’s worth between $50 million and $80 million a year, or at most 0.16% of the $50.1 billion in global art sales in 2020, according to the UBS Art Market Report. art.

Meanwhile, sales of contemporary Russian art at auction, almost non-existent on the market for years, topped $15 million in 2021, Vickery said, but that sum remains a tiny fraction of the art market. contemporary. Meanwhile, Russian galleries haven’t presented at major art fairs Art Basel and Frieze for years.

“We stagnated and isolated ourselves,” said a Moscow-based dealer.

The rise and fall of Russian collectors

Russian collectors burst onto the world stage about a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union. At first, the goal was to expatriate Russian treasures to Russia. In 2004, recently sanctioned Viktor Vekselberg paid around $100 million for nine Imperial Fabergé eggs from the Forbes family collection. Three years later, Cellist Mstislav Rostropovich’s 450-piece art collection, valued at £20million at Sotheby’s, was privately recovered at the eleventh hour by Alisher Usmanov, another newly sanctioned billionaire.

As their taste widened, Russians began to buy Western art. In 2008, Melnichenko paid record prices for paintings by Monet, which were reportedly housed on one of his two mega-yachts. Abramovich lost $86.3 million for Francis Bacon Triptych and an additional $33.6 million for Lucian Freud Dormant Benefits Supervisor. Both were records at the time.

Lucian Freud's Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (1995).  Photo: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images.

by Lucian Freud Dormant Benefits Supervisor (1995). Photo: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images.

The big auction houses used to ship their best lots to Moscow for previews. The Gagosian Gallery held two bustling pop-up exhibitions there in 2007 and 2008, one coinciding with the collapse of Lehman Brothers. “Everything sold out,” said a Russian-born collector, who bought a Jeff Koons.

But the love story did not last. After the financial crisis, many Russian collectors realized they had purchased substandard contemporary Western works or paid inflated prices, the Moscow dealer said. While legendary early 20th century collectors Sergey Schukin and Ivan Morozov built some of the best collections of Western avant-garde art, “there is no longer a single Russian collection that can compete with, say, [Christie’s owner François] Pinault’s,” the merchant said.

They continued to buy Impressionist and modern art, according to Vickery, competing for works by Chagall, Kandinsky and Soutine with international buyers. “Their absence will be felt, but it won’t be such a big cut,” she said.

They also continued to invest in Russian art. Along with his ex-wife Dasha Zhukova, Abramovich purchased a definitive trove of works by Russian-American artist Ilya Kabakov for an estimated $60 million.

Aven has built up an important collection of Soviet porcelain created between 1917 and 1941 alongside Russian avant-garde masterpieces. At the beginning of February, the art diary reported his plans to open a private museum in Riga, Latvia in 2025.

Oleg Tselkov, Exodus, Red Expression.  Courtesy of Igor Tsukanov.

Oksana Mas, Exodus, red expression. Courtesy of Igor Tsukanov.

Look forward

Since the beginning of the war, Tsukanov, based in London, has been asked by the Museum of Modern Art in Moscow to extend the Tselkov exhibition. “There are no new projects,” he said.

He has also contributed to charities for Ukraine. Oksana Mas, who studied art in Odessa and represented Ukraine at the Venice Biennale in 2011, asked Tsukanov to help her sell around 50 paintings from her own inventory. She wants to use the proceeds to help Ukrainian refugees, he said.

“I wasn’t sure how it was going to turn out at all,” Tsukanov said. “But I was pleasantly surprised by the enthusiasm.” It has already sold for £400,000 and the campaign continues.

He began to consider an exhibition of Ukrainian art in London.

“After the war,” he says. “It is not the moment.”

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