The art world faces a nervous build-up to its crucial June auctions, amid concern that the fallout from the crisis in Ukraine will deter Russian collectors.
Wealthy Russian buyers, including Roman Abramovich and Alisher Usmanov, have helped to generate record prices for art sold in London and New York over the past decade, with a particular focus on impressionist and modern works.
In February, a fortnight before Viktor Yanukovich was deposed as Ukraine’s president, Christie’s and Sotheby’s sold £340m of Impressionist and modern art, including works by Camille Pissarro, Juan Gris and Henry Moore.
There have been no prominent auctions of Impressionist or Russian art since then, following the seasonal schedule.
Auction houses told the Financial Times that they would be closely watching to see whether Russian collectors were active in the next big sales in June and July. Impressionist works are due to go under the hammer in London, while Henri Matisse’s La Séance du matin (Morning Session) will go on sale in New York next month with an estimated valuation of between $20m and $30m.
“London in June will be the one to watch,” said Melanie Gerlis, an editor at The Art Newspaper, an industry publication.
Morton & Eden, specialist London auctioneers, will be selling Russian coins and medals, for which buyers are often Ukrainian.
Russian collectors have been crucial to rising prices, with Christie’s alone reporting that Russian-speaking buyers had spent more than £1bn on works since 2008.
One market observer said it was “too early to tell” whether appetite would be reduced, while another said buyers would be unlikely to pass on works that might not return to auction for several decades.
The last bout of nervousness in the art world was because of the war in Syria. In that instance, the regional operations of Sotheby’s and Christie’s – in Qatar and Dubai respectively – reported brisk business despite the violence and associated diplomatic tensions.
However, the chill between Russian and EU governments may already be affecting sponsorship of art exhibitions.
“People from big Russian companies don’t know what to do,” said Igor Tsukanov, a leading collector of Russian art. “They froze everything – all sponsorship is on hold.”
Lending between galleries in Europe and Russia could also be jeopardised by worsening relations between national governments.
Several works from the State Russian Museum in St Petersburg and Moscow’s State Tretyakov Gallery are expected to be displayed at the Tate Modern’s forthcoming exhibition of pieces by Kazimir Malevich, a Russian modernist who witnessed the October Revolution.
Loan agreements are typically negotiated years in advance, suggesting that the impact of current disruption would be felt from 2015 onwards.
The Malevich exhibition, which opens in July, is sponsored by the family foundation of Len Blavatnik, a Soviet-born billionaire who is now based in New York and London.
Political tensions also jar with the tone of this year’s UK-Russia Year of Culture, which includes film screenings in Moscow of National Theatre productions and an exhibition on the style of James Bond.
A spokesman for the British Council said: “Cultural exchange helps to maintain open dialogue between people and institutions . . . Wherever possible, we would like the exhibitions, shows and performances in Russia to continue.”