15-12-07-2220NE05A sothebys russian auction.jpg
The Russian Imperial gold and enamel snuff box with the diamond-set crowned cypher of Emperor Nicholas made by the goldsmith Carl Blank for the St Petersburg jeweller Hahn. It sold at Sotheby’s for £350,000.

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The £17.2m total (including premium) from four auction houses was well below the £40.5m posted at the equivalent series last year and indicated that the problems evident in the June series, which raised £21.1m, remain very much in place.

The last ten years has witnessed heady spending in this sector with series totals running at over £30m and peaking at £62m with demand fuelled by private buyers from Russia and ex-Soviet block countries. With auctioneers riding the wave, for a time the Russian art sector was at least as financially important to the London salerooms as the Old Masters category.

But the recent slump in the Russian economy, the fall in the oil price, the tumbling of the rouble which hit to a new low at the end of August and has not yet recovered, and even the sanctions following the conflict in Ukraine have proved a damaging mix for the art market.

A lack of confidence now evident meant that vendors were reluctant to consign works to the current series and the sales had an accurate shortage of major works, particularly paintings. No lots made over £1m and a reluctance to accept lower estimates meant that unsold rates ran high at certain sales, including Bonhams' sale on December 2 where only around a third of the lots got away.

Top Lots

Sotheby's had the lion's share of the more valuable consignments and posted a £9.18m total from their two sales. Their Russian Pictures sale on December 1 was led by the oil on canvas Peasant Woman in a Red Dress by Abram Arkhipov (1862-1930). Estimated at £180,000-250,000, it took £750,000 and was the top lot of the series.

They also had a collection of 250 works on paper by Natalia Goncharova which fetched a total of £537,625 including premium, below an estimate of £942,000.

Christie's staged a single Russian art sale on November 30 which raised £5.31m. They reported that the 68% selling rate by lot was an increase of over 20% on the figures for June.

MacDougall's meanwhile posted £2.21m from two sales on December 2. However, this followed their inaugural sale of Soviet Art in September that raised an additional £4m, allowing Russian art specialists to claim they had doubled their market share in the six month period.

"We are pleased with our sales and are now considering an expansion plan," said the firm's director Catherine MacDougall.

Imperial Gold Box

Despite the generally flat bidding on pictures, there was some keener interest on the best objects on offer across London's Russian week, including at Russian Works of Art, Fabergé & Icons sale on December 1 where 98 of the 134 lots sold (73%) for £2.32m (including premium).

The sale was led by this Russian Imperial gold and enamel snuff box with the diamond-set crowned cypher of Emperor Nicholas made by the goldsmith Carl Blank for the St Petersburg jeweller Hahn (the main rival of Carl Fabergé for Emperor Nicholas II's favour).

Measuring 31/2in (9cm) wide and dated to 1899-1908, it had previously sold at Sotheby's New York in December 1992 for £51,000.

Estimated here at £200,000-300,000, it drew competition that carried it over predictions and was knocked down at £350,000.

The buyer's premium at the Russian art sales in London was 25/20/12%.