The most expensive Russian painting in history was sold at an auction at Bonham’s in London on Wednesday for £7.9m. The purchase of Madonna Laboris, painted in 1931 by artist and philosopher Nikolai Roerich, by an unnamed telephone bidder was the highlight of a day of another record-breaking day for Russian art on the international market.
Madonna Laboris is part of a series of works depicting the Great Female Deities of the World, one of Roerich’s spiritual obsessions. It was believed to be lost, until it re-emerged in a private collection in the US. Prior to the auction, Yelena Harbick, director of Russian Art at Bonham’s in New York, hailed the painting as “a major rediscovery of a masterpiece of great significance” and predicted “considerable interest among international collectors". The painting depicts the Virgin Mary inside the blue, glowing walls of heaven, letting down her scarf to help souls climb in. Harbick praised its “balanced and harmonious composition, rich and saturated tones of turquoise, cerulean blues, sea-foam greens with black and fiery-red accents”.
With the exception of a brief slump after the 2008 crisis, Russian art has been fetching high prices in London for more than a decade, especially during Russian Art Week, a biannual event when major auction houses present Russian sales. Theodora Clarke, editor of Russian Art and Culture and founder of the Russian Art Week guide, noted the impressive increase: “It is incredible to think that just over ten years ago, Sotheby’s Russian painting sales only made around £4m a year.”
The meteoric rise in the market for Russian art reflects both aesthetic and more financial trends. “Art is being seen by high-net-worth individuals as a good alternative investment, given the eurozone crisis,” says Clarke. “As a result, buyers want top-quality works with a good provenance, which is what the main auction houses offer.” Nineteenth-century paintings have always been popular, but recently modern and contemporary Russian art has also been enjoying a boom.
On Monday, Still Life with Fruit, by avant-garde artist Ilya Mashkov, sold at Christie’s for £4.7m, more than doubling the record for this artist — Still Life with Flowers (1909), which sold for £2.4m at Sotheby’s in 2005. The vibrant Still Life with Fruit, which shows the influence of Russian folk traditions as well as Matisse and Cezanne, was first exhibited in 1910 at the inaugural show of radical art group the Jack of Diamonds. Christie’s experts described it as “the most significant example of Russian neo-primitivism to have appeared at auction in recent years”.
Avant-garde art has smashed records before at Christie’s. In 2008, and then again in 2010, Natalia Goncharova became the most expensive female artist ever at auction when her bold and original still lives went for more than £7m. Goncharova was in demand again on Monday evening when her striking Femme Cubiste (c.1920) netted £662,500 at Sotheby’s. Another work from the same period, Yuri Annenkov’s haunting portrait of the poet Anna Akhmatova, went for five times the lower estimate, almost reaching the million-pound mark.
Even artists with a low profile in the western Europe can do well. Alexander Volkov’s Child Musicians (1926) sold at Bonham’s for more than £2m, including the buyer’s premium — ten times the lower estimate. Child Musicians is a joyfully enigmatic painting in which tambourine-playing children seem to be about to escape from their cramped frame. Bonham’s Sophie Law described Volkov’s work as a fusion of “western modernism and Central Asian art and life”, and praised him as “an incredibly interesting artist” and “the father of the Oriental avant-garde”.