Auctioneers Gear Up for Russian Sales

Christie’s International / BloombergThe top lot at Christie’s auction is a 1778 dinner service given by Prussian ruler Frederick II to Grand Duke Paul.

NEW YORK —­ Sotheby’s and Christie’s International are offering $31 million of Russian art in separate sales amid signs that the country’s billionaires are returning to the auction rooms.

Christie’s in London hopes to make as much as £13.6 million ($21.6 million) on Monday and Tuesday with a sale that includes a porcelain dinner set owned by Russia’s heir to the throne, Grand Duke Paul, which may fetch £300,000. Sotheby’s will offer about $9 million in Russian art Nov. 2 at its first such fall sale in New York.

This week’s event is the first major Russian-art auction since June, when total takings at Christie’s, Sotheby’s and MacDougall’s in London were half that of 2008, following a 10 percent slump in the Russian economy in the first half.

“Wealthy Russians and Ukrainians account for more than 90 percent of the market, and many have had a difficult 18 months,” said William MacDougall, co-director of MacDougall’s in London. “Some are struggling, but many appear to be past the worst. The mood is improving. There have been reports of healthy private sales in Moscow and Kiev as wealthy people look for safer homes for their money than stocks.”

Christie’s on Monday was to auction part of one of the largest private Russian art collections in the West, assembled since 1920 by Galerie Popoff of Paris.

While Christie’s usually sells Russian art in London in June and at the end of November, it said the Popoff Collection’s size, quality and rarity merits a separate event.

“In my 25 years, I’ve never had such a great single collection,” said Alexis de Tiesenhausen, Christie’s international head of Russian art. “There is nothing comparative in terms of quality and historical significance.”

Paris dealer Alexandre Popoff benefited from refugees arriving in France from the Soviet Union, including some aristocrats who had to sell their valuables. Popoff’s clients included the duke and duchess of Windsor; Mstislav Rostropovich, the Russian cellist; actress Greta Garbo and composer Leonard Bernstein.

The 550 lots, mostly with estimates of less than £50,000, include 18th- and 19th-century porcelain; 19th-century paintings and watercolors; gold and silver items and textiles. The top lot is the 1778 Berlin-made dinner service that was a gift from the Prussian ruler, Frederick II, to Grand Duke Paul.

The Sotheby’s auction Nov. 2 has 122 lots, including 19th-century and early-20th-century paintings, Faberge works, silver and Orthodox icons.

“We’ll see strong bidding for top works because of their quality and rarity,” said Sonya Bekkerman, head of Russian art at Sotheby’s in New York. The sale is led by 20 paintings from the Schreiber collection, which Sotheby’s calls “one of the finest groupings of modern and avant-garde Russian art assembled in the U.S.”

These include Natalia Goncharova’s “Tournesols,” a 1920s still-life inspired by Vincent van Gogh’s “Sunflowers,” and Konstantin Korovin’s “At the Window,” a 1923 portrait of two women. Both have estimates of $600,000 to $800,000.

A year ago, about half a dozen top lots at any Russian auction would have had estimates of more than $1 million. Now, as demand has decreased, auction houses have dropped estimates.

“The auction’s conservative estimates are key,” Bekkerman said. “It’s important to manage the market’s expectations.”