TOTAL SALES CLIMBED 2.6% from last November, from £35m to £36m, although this apparent stability was the result of the exceptional £9.2m paid for a Petrov-Vodkin still life at Christie’s that accounted for over one-quarter of the entire sales total generated by nearly 1200 lots.

There were almost precisely the same number of lots offered and sold as last November. The buy-in rate averaged 39% but varied from firm to firm – dipping from 35% to 25% at Christie’s, remaining broadly stable at Sotheby’s and MacDougall’s, and rising from 39% to 48% at Bonhams. Petrov-Vodkin helped Christie’s more than double their takings from six months ago, whereas sales at the other three firms were down – by 15% at MacDougall’s, 28% at Bonhams and 34% at Sotheby’s. Christie’s and Sotheby’s combined share of the market was 80%  – up from 74% in November 2018.

All four firms were represented in the week’s Top Ten, which included three still lifes, four portraits and two Ayvazovskys, with the older outselling the larger. As last November four works cleared £1m, with Petrov-Vodkin setting a new auction record for a Russian painting and MacDougall’s Kustodiev – acquired at Sotheby’s for £1.26m in 2014 – generating a five-year 25% return on investment. But there were only five prices of over £500,000 compared to nine last November, with the last two works in this June’s Top Ten barely limping past their reserves. Highest price for a work of art, meanwhile, was £275,000 at Christie’s for an oval porcelain dish painted with a colourful shipyard scene by Stella Vengerovskaya in 1923.


The market’s apparent stability is misleading. There is money and demand for works of exceptional quality, but auctioneers continue to struggle to attract top-level consignments. The middle-market remains sluggish, except for ensembles underpinned by rarity and impeccable provenance (like the Chekhonins and Ostroumova-Lebedeva woodcuts, at Christie’s). There was, however, something of an upturn in prices for Non-Conformist artists, represented this week by fewer but more carefully selected works than usual, while the market for Soviet porcelain looks increasingly buoyant.