December 9, 2011 6:34 pm

The art market: Dramatic exits

Russian art sales deliver mixed results while Bonhams puts a newly rediscovered Velázquez portrait up for sale

The sales of Russian art in London last week presented a mixed picture. The best result was for a collection of works on paper by Alexander Benois, theatre designer for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, at Sotheby’s, 130 ballet and opera designs, landscapes and portraits of the artist’s family. Expected to make £1.1m, it was a “white glove” sale, with all the lots sold for almost £2m and estimates left in the dust: the top lot, a design for Le Rossignol (est. £30,000-£50,000), sold for £235,250.

Konstantin Somov’s ‘The Boxer’

Konstantin Somov’s ‘The Boxer’ (1933)

But elsewhere the sell-through rates were not so perky. Only 66.7 per cent of the works on offer in Sotheby’s Important Russian Art sale found buyers, for a total of £5.6m. Christie’s made £13m in its Russian art sale on November 28, with 65 per cent sold by lot, while MacDougall’s, which specialises in the Russian market, made £8.9m, with almost 60 per cent bought in.

The Russian market is quite different from any other, says Jo Vickery, head of Sotheby’s Russian department: “It is dominated by Russians, who account for 95 per cent of the buyers. This market was growing fast, now it has stabilised. When it started 12 years ago, buyers were mainly newcomers, but now they are more experienced, and they are looking for fresh-to-market pieces; things that have been around are far more difficult to sell today.” In her Important Russian Art sale this month, eight of the top lots went to buyers from the Commonwealth of Independent States.

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Three galleries are closing in New York, for very different reasons. One is Bose Pacia, which specialises in south Asian art and is closing at the end of this month “to open a non-commercial transitional gallery”. The Chelsea-based Taxter and Spengemann, which recently exhibited at Art Basel Miami Beach, is also lowering its shutters, declining to give any reasons for its decision.

The most dramatic disappearance is that of the 165-year-old Knoedler Gallery, a New York institution that snapped shut on November 30 in the middle of a show by sculptor Charles Simonds. The following day, the London-based hedge-fund veteran Pierre Lagrange filed a lawsuit in New York against Knoedler, claiming that a Pollock, “Untitled (1950)”, which he bought there in 2007, is a forgery. He says he bought it from the gallery through intermediaries, art dealers Jaime Frankfurt and Tim Taylor, paying a total of $17m including commission. They are not accused of any wrongdoing.

‘Portrait of a gentleman’ by Velázquez

‘Portrait of a gentleman’ by Velázquez

In his court complaint, Lagrange claims that the “work is neither authentic nor saleable”. He also says it is not in the Pollock-Krasner Foundation catalogue raisonné and was turned down by both Sotheby’s and Christie’s when he tried to resell it. Lagrange is suing both the gallery and former director Ann Freedman, asking for at least $15.3m plus punitive damages. The gallery explained its closure by saying: “This was a business decision made after careful consideration over the course of an extended period of time.”

This affair has wider ramifications because the US Federal Bureau of Investigations is currently conducting an inquiry into a far-ranging case of possible forgeries of modern American masters, including Motherwell, Pollock, Rothko, Franz Kline, Clyfford Still and Willem de Kooning. At least 15 are said to have gone through Freedman at Knoedler, according to a report in the New York Times citing court papers. Kathleen Blomquist, spokeswoman for Knoedler, declined to comment this week on Freedman’s 2009 resignation. Ann Freedman herself told me: “I firmly refute the accusations that I misled anyone concerning this transaction. I believed in the authenticity of the Pollock at that time [of sale] and continue to do so.”

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‘The Battle between Carnival and Lent’ by Pieter Brueghel II

‘The Battle between Carnival and Lent’ (detail) by Pieter Brueghel II

There were thrills and spills at Bonhams’ and Christie’s Old Master painting sales this week (Sotheby’s sale was held after press time). The biggest buzz was reserved for a newly rediscovered Velázquez portrait which turned up in Oxford last year estimated at just £300. Rescued in extremis for further research, it was recognised as by the Spanish master and put up for sale at Bonhams with an estimate of £2m-£3m. Figures up to £8m were bandied about, but in the event dealer Otto Naumann bagged it at just £2.95m, against only one other telephone bidder. He was thrilled: “I’m shocked,” he said afterwards; “I thought it could go to £20m.” The sale represented almost half of Bonhams’s £6.3m total; the other highlight was the £2m paid by William Noortman (whose company belongs to Sotheby’s) for a gorgeous still life by Coorte (est. £300,000-£500,000).

At Christie’s evening sale, the star lot was a Goya portrait of an embroiderer to King Carlos IV of Spain, looking for £4m-£6m. But the portly gentleman failed to elicit any excitement: he did not sell. However, a Van de Velde II seascape in tip-top condition sailed to £5.9m (est £1.5m-£2.5m), setting a new record for the artist. Top lot was “The Battle between Carnival and Lent” by Pieter Brueghel II which made a punchy £6.9m (est. £3.5m-£4.5m), again a new price high. The sale totalled £24.1m, with 72 per cent of the lots finding buyers.

Georgina Adam is editor-at-large of The Art Newspaper

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