Malevich Expected to Smash Record

APKazimir Malevich's painting "Suprematist Composition" being displayed by Sotheby's employees in London on Friday.
LONDON -- Sotheby's expects a painting by avant-garde painter Kazimir Malevich to shatter the auction record for a Russian work of art when it goes under the hammer in New York on Nov. 3.

"Suprematist Composition," painted in 1916, is expected to fetch more than $60 million, reflecting its quality -- Sotheby's calls it "one of the greatest modern paintings ever offered for sale" -- and confidence in the strength of the art market despite the global financial crisis.

"This is an absolute modern masterpiece that dates from the best possible period for Malevich -- 1916," said Emmanuel Di-Donna, vice chairman of impressionist and modern art at Sotheby's and head of its evening sales in New York. "This is arguably a much better painting than anything offered by Malevich, ever."

Sotheby's said the existing record for Russian art at auction is a painting by Wassili Kandinsky that raised $20.9 million in 1990. The record for a work by Malevich is $17.1 million set in 2000.

Asked if the valuation was aggressive, Di-Donna replied, "There have been some unbelievable prices for iconic works of art, and Malevich is to Russians what Rothko is to Americans."

In 2007, Rothko's "White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose)" fetched $72.8 million in New York in what was then a record for a post-war artwork at auction.

Rich Russians have been one reason for the disconnect between the financial crisis and soaring prices for top works of art, and they are expected to be out in force for the Malevich sale.

"Suprematist Composition" lends its name to the art movement Malevich founded in 1915 or 1916, which involved black or boldly colored geometric shapes on a light background.

Di-Donna said that in 1927, Malevich took works, including the one on sale, to Warsaw and Berlin, because they were considered too subversive to be exhibited in the Soviet Union. He was obliged to return to the Soviet Union when a visa problem arose and was never again allowed to leave. "Suprematist Composition" and 13 other works were later entrusted to a German architect who purportedly sold them to the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam years after the artist's death in 1935.

The museum said it acquired the paintings in 1958 and did so in good faith, but the heirs argued the seller was not entitled to release the artist's works.

In 2003, the Amsterdam museum lent the 14 paintings to New York's Guggenheim Museum and Houston's Menil Collection, which prompted the heirs to file a suit in the United States.

The settlement meant that the heirs received five paintings from the Amsterdam collection, including "Suprematist Composition," a series of brightly-colored rectangles and lines painted at angles on a white background.