Firstly, I have a confession. I have sinned. I have erred from the woke like a lost sheep. 

Whilst many of my ever-diminishing readership will think that I thoroughly deserve it, I have recently become a victim of the woke crowd and thus, from now on, all my reviews, utterances, even exclamations will be subject to the most rigorous censorship. Whilst this gives me the distinct advantage of finally knowing how felt a writer in (whisper it quietly, totalitarian) Soviet Russia in 1948, my rear quarters are still smarting. Someone old enough to be my great granddaughter brought me wailing before the Grand Vizier and I have been castigated. Luckily, I saw the error of my ways, have bent the knee before the baying crowd and am a changed man. Jollity begone! Forsooth flippancy! Bring on the grey, as many shades as you think appropriate which, as the sky outside is a bizarre slate colour, brings me conveniently onto this winter’s auctions of Russian Art. 

I. Kliun Spherical Suprematism est. £2,500,000 – £3,500,000

In truth, a concept with which I am clearly an ever-more distant relation, the auctions are about as grey as the skies outside though there is a light of such celestial brilliance that I struggle to find the mots justes. This winter, 2019, the London auctions of Russian Art are headed by a Kliun from the Costakis collection. Actually, let me re-phrase that. This winter, 2019, the London auctions of Russian Art are headed by Kliun of such mega, out-there brilliance that we might as well all pack up and go home. Best picture to come up at Russian Art Week for years? Go on! Tell me I’m wrong!

Indeed, it’s pretty difficult to find anything at the four auction houses that even holds a candle to this masterpiece. The summer was bad enough with the KPV going tonto, but this winter (do we still have a winter or are we heading into the dark abyss, taking Greta with us?) is worse. Far worse. At least we had a bit of padding in the summer but now. 


I make no secret of my fondness for the Russian avant garde, a movement of utter brilliance that could, and should, have influenced Western European Art for centuries but the fact that Sotheby’s have resurrected a major Kliun oil, last seen at auction in 1990, is a considerable coup. It has the required red-hot provenance, George Costakis and, purely visually, is one to treasure. The estimate £2,500,000-£3,500,000 is attractive, serious collectors will be lining up, but will it fetch as much as the KPV? I’m hedging my bets. Call Ladbrokes! 

Kustodiev, Boris Autumn. The Student’s Farewell, signed and dated 1923. est. £1,500,000 – £2,000,000

I also make no secret of my admiration for Macdougalls and how they have shaken up the market. They always seem to come up with one or two masterpieces though I don’t always agree with their estimates. This winter their star painting is one of those evocative, autumnal landscapes of provincial Russia by Boris Kustodiev that one really should not like, but simply cannot help oneself. ‘Autumn. The Student’s Farewell’ is, for want of a better word, so blinking ‘Russian’. Lyrical, poignant, you feel the student is off, not to some rosy future, but to an unstable world, a world of intellectual torpor and to a life untenable, it reminds me of a P.G. Wodehouse quote about Russian literature which I will not share in a family magazine such as this. The provenance rocks too. The Kapitsa Family. It is the Chelsea of Russian Art Week. Kliun is Liverpool and Man City combined. 

Macdougalls have always supported, much to their credit, the market for non-conformists and have sold a number of great works over the years, 15 to be precise, and are celebrating their anniversary. In offering written congratulations – I have always found the Fire/Ice combo of Mr and Mrs MackyD. one to admire – I cannot put pass comment on a wonderful Oleg Vassiliev and terrific Mikhail Shvartsmann that they are offering for sale. This market is so undervalued. Let’s get it back!

Natalia Goncharova (Russian, 1881-1962) Landscape Birch Trees est: £120,000 – £150,000

Other highlights include a large Goncharova of a Spanish woman that, in my opinion, carries too high an estimate. The painting lacks the panache of her earlier representations of Espagnoles, is too flat and slightly predictable. It is, on the other hand, a statement painting, enormous in size 165 high and certainly commercial. They are also selling a KPV oil, clearly not a patch on ‘THE’ still life and one I remember from my days dealing in Moscow back in the 20th century. 

Bonhams are unfortunate in being, essentially, last in the queue for Russian paintings but, nonetheless, one has to be objective. The early Goncharova landscape they are offering really is mega-dull, despite a glowing adjective of ‘visionary’ (in its Spinal Tap sense of the word?) attached to the artists’ status in the Press blurb. It is, however a veritable masterpiece when stood next to the Larionov portrait being offered which, regrettably, sits at the opposite end of the spectrum to the Kliun. I have had many a fierce debate with Russian friends as to the merits of these two artists, always coming down in favour of the female but such debates have almost nasty when I disparage Larry for turning thoroughly second rate the moment he crossed the French border whereas Gonchy at least waited a few years before her output sank. There can be no greater evidence than the late Larionov portrait being offered. Depicting a lady who must be an Arsenal season-ticket holder, it is drab, depressing and, if anything, third rate. The estimate is reassuringly low – watch it fly……….I’m hardly accurate in my predictions……

M. Larionov, Landscape (The Orchard) Est: 400,000 – 600,000GBP

By way of a contrast, Sotheby’s have an early Larionov ‘Orchard’ with a 400-600,000 estimate. It’s in the sub-pointilliste style beloved of the artist’s early work and has those qualitied of movement and dynamism that can be a feature of the period. Sotheby’s are also selling an important Yuon landscape of Uglich with all the bells and whistles. I counted 17 cupolas and 3 bell towers all set on a golden, sunset background (God help me there are a lot of sunsets in Russian Art) which, taking into account the £600-800,000 estimate is roughly £35,295 quid a cupola. I may be strung up for saying so but, unlike the Kustodiev, I cannot but attach the ‘kitsch’ adjective to the picture – it’s just too pretty… come the, ‘he’s not Russian, he doesn’t understand’, jibes. 

We also have an Aivasovsky sunset at Christies but then, where would Russian Art week be without an Aivasovsky sunset? This sunset has a very attractive 300-500,000 estimate for a painting 37 x 94.5 in size and would, Ladbrokes predict, come in at 650,000. 

K. Yuon The Ancient Town of Uglich est. £600,000 – £800,000

Our chums at Christies, fresh from winning the Eurovision Song Contest, are selling a really superb vase of the Russian North from what looks like the late-1920’s early-1930’s. I feel I should keep quiet about this lot in order to myself put in a cheeky bid but my objectivity remains sacred and, as I wrote, my every word is now subjected to scrutiny. It is a piece that shows the growing tendency to realist, figurative, art in Soviet iconography before the full horrors of socialist realism and at £60-80,000 it is in the ‘bargain’ category. The wonderful jagged edges of the icebergs are set against a cobalt blue background with the Soviet plane almost incidental top right. It looks like a Roger Dean poster 50 years before Roger Dean posters or a Lord of the Rings landscape with a Bi-Plane a few years before LOTR.

I like it, I want. I won’t get it.

Christies also boast a wonderfully sexy portrait by Feshin of ‘A Lady painting her nails. Portrait of Mademoiselle Zhirmeau’ – even the title is sexy, as is the lady’s pose, gesture, and features. She has a wonderfully feline expression and that knowing look beloved of the female sex when they just know they are spectacular. Even though the estimate of £2-3,000,000 is less of a turn on, I think this one could hit the heights of the Sotheby’s sold Portrait of Nadezhda Sapozhnikova which sold for £3m back in 2012. If this portrait was a cat it would positively purr…..then scratch your eyes out……

Soviet Porcelain vase By the State Porcelain Factory, Leningrad, est. £60,000 – £100,000

Christies also have a painting connected to the Arctic wastes, an important Roerich that, were I not a cynic, I would equate with being a first visual representation of Extinction Rebellion, but perhaps less annoying. Painted in 1919, the Call of the Sun is, without doubt, a major piece with a pretty hefty estimate, £1,500,000-£2,000,000, but such is the ‘statement’ of the painting, at 116 x 150 cm, that I can certainly foresee a few Rooskie chequebooks being waved in its general direction. £3,250,000 hammer? Why not? 

Nicholas Roerich The Call of the Sun est. £1,500,000 – £2,000,000

Brunn Rasmussen have an attractive vase from the Imperial Porcelain factory and a good quality sculpture of that paean to liberalism, Nicholas I. They also have a portrait by Alexei Kharlamov. The last sentence that does, in effect, ‘say everything’ because, in my less than humble opinion, Alexei Kharlamov never painted a picture that rose above the ‘total kitsch’ category. Malevich claimed that art had reached the year zero with his Black Square. The same is true of any portrait by Kharlamov. 

I have just realised that most of the above is a denial of an earlier statement that these auctions are lacking in quality, in itself a baseless sin…how I pray that Small Sister is not Watching…….forgive me!

Ernest Julius Wilhelm Mehnert Tsar Nicholas I of Russia (1796-1855) est. €8,050 – €10,500