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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Christie's Bets Rich Russians Will Buy Art


The article should have said Vitebsk is in Belarus.

British auction house Christie's traces its first Russian deal back to 1778, when the rapacious art collector Catherine the Great bought a collection of Dutch masters for ?40,000 ($64,648) to hang in what was to become the Hermitage Museum.

Now, as Russians of a new generation seek to parade their wealth and decorate their salons, the exclusive art dealer is wooing Russian buyers once again.

The chairman of Christie's led a phalanx of art experts to Moscow on Tuesday to hold an exclusive closed exhibit for 100 of Russia's most likely art buyers, displaying works by Picasso, Chagall, Renoir and others with price tags in the millions.

"We have the strong feeling that the economic success of this country has created a new generation of collectors -- this is what we are trying to encourage here," said Anthony Browne, director of Christie's Eastern Europe business, speaking at a pre-exhibit press conference in the Kremlin's Patriarchal Palace.

Russian oil giant LUKoil helped sponsor the exhibit, by some estimates covering two-thirds of the sizeable transport and insurance costs of the valuable paintings which will be returned to New York for an auction on Nov. 11.

Christie's often puts its wares on exhibit before an auction, shuttling famous canvases from Jakarta to Buenos Aires to arouse interest in the works among the world's connoisseurs.

Christie's is not alone in its desire to attract Russia's new wealthy. U.S. auction house Sotheby's has been holding auctions in Russia since 1988, when it held a high-profile sale of Soviet and Russian avante garde work. And Russian dealers have been very active of late in selling the works of Russian realist artists including Ilya Repin, Ivan Shishkin, and Ivan Aivazovsky, said Mikhail Kamensky, an art expert and consultant to newspaper Kommersant Daily.

"As to the attitude of the new Russian bourgeoisie, they are buying mainly Russian painters of the 19th century and early 20th century, spending up to $200,000. This is the psychological limit for the moment."

The stakes are higher at a Christie's auction. Among the works on display at the Kremlin was Amadeo Modigliani's painting "Beatrice Hastings assise," expected to fetch $3 million to $4 million at auction, Christie's estimates.

Other works included Edgar Degas' "Dancer with tambourine," Paul Gauguin's watercolor "la orana Maria," and Pierre August Renoir's "Head of a Girl." The 21 works displayed ranged in value from $400,000 to $4 million.

Two works that might be of special interest to Russian buyers are "Le Clown Peintre" by Marc Chagall and "Nach Rechts" by Wassily Kandinsky.

The Chagall painting offers a bright-red image of Vitebsk, Ukraine, where the author was born and lived until emigrating to Paris. The painting holds some signature Chagall elements, including an image of Chagall himself dressed as a clown, and of a couple levitating above the town as if "transported by love," said Christie's modern art expert Franck Giraud.

Christie's said it does not yet know whether any Russian buyers will participate at the Nov. 11 auction. The company entrusted LUKoil to pass out invitations to Tuesday's exclusive exhibit, a VIP list the company declined to disclose.

But Russian banks stand out as the country's most prominent art collectors, with Stolichny Bank, Alfa Bank, and Renaissance Capital Group leading the pack, Kamensky said. Russian collectors have paid close attention to Christie's Faberg? works and its collection of vintage cars and wines, said representatives of the auction house.

The ownership of many works traded in Russia in recent years is not known, as art dealers fearing heavy tax burdens have gone underground, selling works out of their apartments.

"People don't want to show their money ... so now is the time for the shadow art dealers," Kamensky said.

Christie's Chairman Lord Charles Hindlip said he hoped Russia's new wealthy would follow the example of U.S. oil baron Paul Getty, a famous benefactor of art museums including London's National Gallery.

"I hope that masterpieces like the ones we are exhibiting here will soon be available to the great museums of Russia," Hindlip said.

LUKoil's relationship with Christie's emerged from an unsuccessful auction in which the oil major attempted to buy a tapestry for the Leningrad Museum.

"We went to the auction and lost," said Alexander Vassilenko, director of LUKoil's public relations department. "We understood that we had to befriend Christie's -- maybe from this unsuccessful happening a partnership was born."