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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Christie's Plans an Office for Moscow

Itar-TassA man looking at a portrait by Picasso at a pre-auction viewing in Moscow organized by Christie's in November.
NEW YORK -- Christie's International, the world's largest auction house, plans to open its first office in Russia as the country's wealthy buyers play an increasingly important role in the booming global art market.

The new branch, scheduled to open by the end of the year, will be in Moscow, though the auction house has not made a final decision on the location, said Ellen Berkeley, Christie's director of business development in Europe.

Sotheby's, the world's No. 2 auction house and a fierce rival to Christie's, opened a Moscow office in May.

Russia is the world's second-biggest oil exporter. The number of billionaires in the country jumped to 53 in 2007 from seven in 2002, according to Forbes magazine, which estimated the group's collective worth at $282 billion. Russia has more billionaires than any other country except the United States and Germany, Forbes said.

Anna Belorusova, Christie's consultant in Russia for the past 12 years, will head the Moscow branch, Berkeley said. Belorusova will focus on cultivating clients, getting consignments and arranging private sales.

Christie's, however, will not hold auctions in Moscow.

"I just can't imagine having sales in Russia," said the London-based Berkeley. "Russian law changes dramatically. The structure isn't really in place."

Russian collectors "are connoisseurs now," Berkeley said. "They know exactly what they want," with Russian, Impressionist and modern art topping the list.

Russian collectors are eyeing other areas of art ranging from Japanese swords to Asian figurines, Berkeley said. "There is a lot of interest in the ornate," such as French and German furniture, icons, porcelain and silver, she added.

The interest in decorative arts stems from a trend in lavish home decor among wealthy Russians.

"They love entertaining," Berkeley said. "Their wives have got endless amounts of time."

Christie's said its sales of Russian art increased more than sevenfold between 2000 and 2006. In the first half of 2007, the auction house sold $69 million worth of Russian art worldwide. The house took in $70.5 million for Russian art for all of 2006.

Sotheby's said its Russian art sales have risen more than 20-fold since 2000, totaling $153.5 million in 2006. So far this year, Sotheby's Russian art sales have totaled $107.2 million.

Christie's ties with Russia date to the late 18th century. In one private sale, Empress Catherine the Great bought works by Rubens and Rembrandt for the State Hermitage Museum.

In recent years, Christie's has worked with Russian museums and companies to bring works of art to Russia for public display ahead of the auction house's sales in London and New York.

In March, a painting by 19th-century Russian realist Vasily Vereshchagin was shown at the Tretyakov Gallery. The work had never been shown in Russia until then. In April, it fetched $3.6 million at Christie's auction in New York.

In November, Christie's used a gallery owned by Leonid Mikhelson, chief executive officer of Novatek, the country's largest independent natural-gas company, to exhibit more than 20 Russian artworks from Christie's London sale that same month. "We had 5,000 visitors in one weekend," Berkeley said. "They were queuing around the block."