Art sales hit by credit crunch

Four of London’s most prestigious auction houses are holding a week of Russian art sales. They’re trying to sell more than $113 million worth of paintings, Faberge items, Orthodox icons, silver and porcelain. It’s the first major test for the Russian art

Four London auction houses seek to sell more than $US 113 million worth of paintings, Faberge items, Orthodox icons, silver and porcelain in their Russian sales this week.
Dealers are watching carefully to judge the effect the credit crunch has had on the art world.

Specialist in Russian art, Alexander Von Solodkoff, said there was “great interest” among buyers who had “money to invest”.

 “But it depends of course on the quality of the pieces – and at the moment it’s only the top quality which is of interest and which is selling,” Von Solodkoff said.

He went on to say the art market had seen “huge price increases” in recent years.  He said works often fetched double the predicted price at sales. 

But he went to say that those days were over: “buyers are now more careful – that won’t happen.”

Christie’s opened the week with a sale of silver, Faberge items and rare tzarist-era military swords.

Ekaterina Dolgova from Art-Bureau, who’s been in the business of buying and selling Russian art for more than ten years, has a special interest in swords. She believes the crisis is unlikely to affect pieces under $US 1 million.

“There are still a number of people in Russia, who haven’t suffered from the crisis that much, and art remains a good investment if it’s not overvalued as it has sometimes been before. So I see no stagnation in the market,” Dolgova said.

One of the top lots at Christie's was a silver soup tureen in the form of a fourteen-gun warship. Commissioned by Catherine the Great for the St Petersburg Admiralty in 1766, it was used at table by her Black Sea fleet. The historic piece was expected to fetch between $640,000 and $960,000 but it didn’t sell.

Christie’s International Director, Anthony Phillips, said he was “disappointed but not totally surprised” that the piece didn’t sell."

“You know we’ve been through a very difficult economy,” he said. 

Another auction house, Bonham’s, also held a Russian art auction. Here, one of the interesting lots was an ornate silver gilt and enamel tankard from 1889, given to the American Wild West hero Buffalo Bill by the Russian Grand Duke Georgy. Valued between $90,000 and $120,000, it didn’t sell either.

So while some experts are optimistic – others are waiting to see which way the crisis will turn. Most agree – for now it’s too early to say. Judging by the number of buyers though, there is still plenty of interest in Russian art.