Jeweled Faberge Icon to Dazzle New York

BloombergJohan Aarne’s Faberge icon of Christ Pantocrator may fetch up to $150,000.
NEW YORK -- A Faberge icon in a silver frame studded with rubies, sapphires and emeralds and a gigantic tsarist-era porcelain centerpiece are among the Russian treasures headed for auction at Sotheby's in New York this week.

The biggest seller of Russian art aims to raise more than $40 million during auctions spanning three centuries on Tuesday and Wednesday. Other highlights are a set of Ivan Aivazovsky's paintings that hung in the White House during John F. Kennedy's presidency and a photomontage of a staged riot by contemporary-art collective AES+F.

Spurred by a new class of ultrarich art collectors, Sotheby's annual Russian sales surged to $190.9 million in 2007 from $6.03 million in 2000. This week's Russian sales, however, come amid jitters about the art market's ability to withstand losses in the financial sector.

"The economy is probably on everybody's mind," said Sonya Bekkerman, head of Sotheby's Russian paintings department in New York. "But all indicators are pointing to strong sales."

Sotheby's Russian contemporary art sale in London last month tallied $8.2 million, up from $5.2 million in 2007.

About 70 percent to 80 percent of the buyers are Russian, Bekkerman said. "Luckily, they are not tied to the subprime mortgage crisis," she said.

"There's a lot of money in the country and the interest in Russian contemporary art is growing," said art dealer Vladimir Ovcharenko. "This will lead to an increase in prices for Russian artists."

Sotheby's will offer 130 lots of postwar and contemporary Russian art on Tuesday. They include paintings by nonconformist artist Oscar Rabin, conceptualists such as Ilya Kabakov and the duo Komar and Melamid, and photorealist Semyon Faibisovich.

"The sale is very well balanced between historical and contemporary, paintings and works on paper," said Natalya Kolodzei, whose collection of Russian postwar and contemporary art is currently on view at the Chelsea Art Museum in New York.

AES+F's "Last Riot, Panorama No. 4," shows a group of children and teens in camouflage pants wielding guns and swords. The work, which was exhibited at the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg last year, is estimated to bring in as much as $220,000.

Rabin's 1959 "City With Moon (Socialist City)" depicts a hodgepodge of gloomy, crumbling houses -- a representation that countered the officially sanctioned image of Soviet life. The painting is estimated to fetch as much as $160,000.

Among more affordable pieces is Tanya Antoshina's takeoff on Ingres' 1862 painting "The Turkish Bath." In a similarly titled 2007 color photograph, Antoshina replaced the original's lounging females with nude men. The work's high estimate is $7,000.

Fine art, offered in a separate section Tuesday, features more 19th-century paintings than usual, Bekkerman said. The top lot: two Aivazovsky paintings depicting scenes of the American relief program to help victims of Russia's 1890s famine. U.S. first lady Jacqueline Kennedy hung the two paintings in the White House during Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's U.S. visit in the 1960s, Sotheby's said. The pair of paintings, completed in 1892, is estimated to fetch $2 million to $3 million.

Russian decorative arts will go on the auction block Wednesday. The Faberge icon with a dazzling frame of precious stones has a high estimate of $150,000.

A lavish porcelain centerpiece produced at the Imperial porcelain factory in St. Petersburg during Nicholas I's reign has a high estimate of $3 million. The piece, more than 1.2 meters high and composed of eight jardinieres with gilt-bronze mounts, was once owned by the Dutch government.