Russian billionaires may come and go,but the ambition to be the next Sergei Shchukin whose unrivalled works by Henri Matisse were divided after the revolution between the Pushkin and Hermitage state museums appears undimmed. Russian collecting is far from dead,thanks to a new cast of characters,says Francis Outred,Christie’s new European head of post-war and contemporary art.
Collections have become an object of fascination in a culture that once had few possessions. In October 2007 the Hermitage inaugurated its contemporary-art programme with an exhibition of work by young American artists from Charles Saatchi’s collection. We like to see what these people spend their money on,explains the curator,Dimitri Ozerkov.
On March 19th Daria Zhukova,best known as Roman Abramovich’s girlfriend,opened Russia’s largest exhibition of contemporary art. Located in her architecturally acclaimed Garage Centre for Contemporary Culture (GCCC) in Moscow,the show consists of 47 works from the collection of François Pinault (pictured above at the opening with Ms Zhukova),a French luxury-goods magnate who also owns Christie’s.
The exhibition is strategic for the French billionaire in two ways. Provenance has always added value to art objects,but the trend is towards promoting it proactively. Mr Pinault’s collection consists of over 2,000 works,which since 2006 have been packaged into a series of impressively curated shows. His new museum in the Punta della Dogana in Venice will be one of the highlights of this year’s Biennale.
Moreover,as a collector who sometimes sells and the owner of an auction house,Mr Pinault values Ms Zhukova and Mr Abramovich as clients. They bought a Lucian Freud painting at Christie’s last May for $33.6m,a record for a work by a living artist,and acquired decorative arts from the Yves Saint Laurent sale last month. The GCCC exhibition was an opportunity to further strengthen alliances.
The importance to the art market of Ms Zhukova and Mr Abramovich is symbolic as much as material. In a country where collecting foreign art ceased in 1917 and picked up pace again only recently,Ms Zhukova is in the vanguard of that mix of fashion,philanthropy and patronage that gives the art market its particular buzz,even if at the moment the couple may not be the biggest spenders. Everyone had more financial freedom 18 months ago, admits Ms Zhukova.
Other Russians are buying,though. Many start their international collections by acquiring a living brand name. Every Russian collector owns a Damien Hirst,says Maria Baibakova,a Courtauld-trained curator; she also collects with her father,Oleg Baybakov,whose business partner is Mikhail Prokhorov,currently considered Russia’s richest man. Then you might graduate to a Richard Prince,a Warhol or a Lichtenstein, she adds. Out of Mr Hirst’s sale at Sotheby’s last September,Beautiful Inside My Head Forever,Ms Baibakova bought a zebra in formaldehyde for £1.1m. Next week her space,Red October Chocolate Factory,will host highlights from Sotheby’s forthcoming spring auctions.
The success of Mr Hirst’s sale,which began the evening that Lehman Brothers collapsed,was in no small part due to collectors from the former Soviet Union. Vladislav Doronin,a Russian property tycoon,bought work,and Alexander Machkevitch,a Kazakh mining magnate,acquired two diamond cabinets,three butterfly paintings and a gold spot canvas for a total of £11.7m. Victor Pinchuk,a Ukrainian steel billionaire,is believed to have bought the large fish cabinet,Here Today,Gone Tomorrow,for £2.95m. It is one of the 100 works that will be shown in the Hirst retrospective,which opens at Mr Pinchuk’s Art Centre in Kiev next month.
Over the past 18 months,a significant number of market highs and lows have been linked to the presence or absence of buyers from the former Soviet Union. Whereas demand for exorbitantly priced works by Modern artists,such as Kasimir Malevich,has evaporated,the appetite for contemporary works is spreading. Victoria Gelfand,a director of Gagosian,an important New York gallery,reports that she has sold art to two new Russian collectors in the past month alone. Whether that is enough,though,remains to be seen.
© The Economist Newspaper Limited 2009