Published: November 20, 2007
“The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming,” might well have been a chant heard around the world from an anxious crowd of art enthusiasts during the days leading up to October 20. Not that they were looking forward to a showing of the 1966 Oscar nominated movie similarly titled, instead they were anticipating a stellar performance of another sort: a prime selection of Russian and Russian American works of art coming to the auction block at Gene Shapiro’s inaugural sale.
The robust selection of paintings by Eastern bloc artists had collectors and dealers, both here and abroad, clamoring. More than 300 lots strong, works by Russian artists ruled the day, with several record prices paid at auction established throughout the sale.
The auction, Shapiro’s first independently conducted sale, was termed a great success by the young auctioneer. Formerly working with the auction gallery previously known as Trinity Fine Arts, Shapiro has continued to focus his interest on Russian works, although a broad selection of art from around the world was also featured.
“The auction went far, far better than I had expected,” commented Shapiro after the auction. “It was an auspicious start,” he said, commenting, “Russian paintings sold well, as did the better paintings from all of the various categories.” When contacted in the days following the auction, speaking from outside the United States, Shapiro acknowledged that at least seven record prices had been established during the sale. “Some were for artists that do not really have an established track record at auction, but are very good artists that we are bringing to the forefront of the marketplace.”
Other records established during the auction were for very desirable works by highly sought-after and well established artists.
Although Russian works comprised almost 70 percent of the offering, “There are good things here for everybody. There is an international flavor to this auction,” Shapiro stated as the auction house principal pointed out a selection of Old Masters paintings that hung in one corner of the auction’s preview area. Pointing in the other direction, Shapiro noted paintings by English, French, Belgian and American artists of prominent interest.
There was also an international flavor to the auction from the standpoint of the bidders taking part in the sale. “We had bidders on the telephones from Europe, Russia, the Ukraine, England and from a large number of collectors here in America.” Phone bidders were numerous, in many cases four or five bidding on the same lots, and the Internet was extremely active throughout the auction, claiming a large percentage of the items offered, including the top lot of the sale.
The moderate-sized crowd bidding live at the auction was not to be outdone though, claiming its share of the lots offered. “We had a couple bidders in the room that bought large volumes of paintings and spent a great deal of money,” said the auctioneer.
Leading the auction was an unusual Vasily Sitnikov oil on canvas, measuring 29 by 55 inches, that depicted a fantasy cityscape with a host of villagers taking part in a variety of activities outside the Kremlin’s walls. Sitnikov boldly portrayed himself in a semi-unfinished corner of the painting, as a teacher with a student, adding finishing touches to the work.
The lower left corner was void of the snowflakes that covered the rest of the scene and was also an area where some of the figures were painted as mere outlines, obviously awaiting colorful details. Humorously, Sitnikov and his student were depicted as having attracted quite a crowd of onlookers as they painted falling snowflakes into the scene.
“Sitnikov is considered to be one of the most important of the major nonconformist Russian artists from the 70s,” stated Shapiro. “He is considered an underground artist that worked against the establishment. This was a major painting for Sitnikov, very unique as he never produced many paintings like it.”
Shapiro reported that the painting had been purchased from the artist by a collector from America shortly after it was finished and it had remained in the same collection since 1975.
The gallery received a huge amount of presale interest in the lot, and by sale time nine phone bidders were registered and a host of Internet bidders were lurking in cyberspace. Bidding on the lot was quick paced, with the lot handily exceeding the $40/60,000 presale estimate. The painting opened at $40,000 with several of the phone bidders getting in on the action until the lot cleared $150,000. Action continued between two phone bidders as the lot passed the $170,000 mark. From there a single phone bidder and an Internet bidder hammered away at each other, with the Sitnikov painting selling to the Internet at $477,900, a record price paid at auction for the artist.
Another Sitnikov painting, a surrealistic scene of a female titled “Karasavaisa,” circa 1985, estimated at $35/45,000, was also the subject of active bidding, with the lot selling at $101,575.
Three works by Eugene Rukhin also had collectors jockeying for position for the limited number of phone lines that the gallery had to offer. Utilizing cellphones as well as land lines, a complete bank of phone bidders lined up to compete for the Rukhin mixed media executed in 1968, titled “Cross.” Rukhin was one of the underground artists responsible for organizing the “Bulldozer Exhibition” in 1974, an unofficial art exhibition erected on a vacant lot in Belyayevo that was forcefully broken up by KGB members and police using water cannons and bulldozers.
A mixed media and wood on linen, the painting was another of the lots to establish a record price paid at auction for Rukhin as it hammered down at $113,525.
“Two Columns,” 1972, and untitled, 1974, both by Rukhin, also attracted a great deal of interest as they sold for $95,600 each.
Other record prices established for Russian artists included a Nineteenth Century seascape titled “Shoreline at Twilight” by Alexei Matveivich. “It reminded people of an Ivan Aivazovsky painting,” stated Shapiro, a Russian master whose paintings sell in the millions. The moody work did well, with it selling at a record price paid at auction for the artist at $40,630.
Two Pyotr Belenok mixed media paintings, one displayed at the Bulldozer Exhibition and sold to the consignor by the artist shortly thereafter, were among the offerings, with one establishing a record for the artist. “Over the Ocean,” a monochromatic mixed media on Masonite depicted a man, dressed in stark black pants and a white shirt against his flesh tones, leaping across the ocean. Bidding on the lot came from several in the gallery as well as the telephones, with the lot establishing a record for the artist at $23,900. Another Belenok painting, “Across the Line,” 1973, sold for $22,705.
An Alexandria Nicolavena Pregel still life was another record-setting painting at $14,340.
Other Russian paintings of interest included a Nineteenth Century finely painted porcelain plaque depicting an officer’s ball, produced at the Imperial Porcelain Manufactory, period of Nicholas I. The rare piece, offered as the fourth lot of the auction, was the first of the lots to bring a hefty price, selling at $69,310.
A painting attributed to Konstantin Alexeivich Korovin, “Seated Woman by The Window,” circa 1927, was actively bid as it easily surpassed the presale estimate of $25/35,000, bringing $57,360. An Abraham Manievich oil titled “Beyond The Trees” also surpassed estimates, making $46,605.
Paintings by David Burliuk did well, with “Flowers By The Sea” selling at $35,850, “The City’s Edge” realized $19,120, and “Village Scene” went out at $17,925.
Paintings by non-Russian artists included an Arthur Szyk watercolor, ink and gouache titled “Judith Holding The Head of Holofernes,” circa 1921, that established a record price paid at auction at $17,925, two Paul Weber landscapes sold at $11,950 each and a Henry Fritz painting also titled “Judith Holding The Head of Holofernes” brought a record price paid at auction for the artist at $4,302.
Somewhat bittersweet, especially after posting such solid results for numerous paintings, was the large number of lots that failed to find buyers at the auction. Of the 314 lots offered, 133 are still available for private treaty purchase on the auction house’s website. Shapiro stated that by value, the auction came in very close to estimates; however, he acknowledged, many of the lesser value paintings failed to find buyers. Applying knowledge gleaned from this first auction, Shapiro stated, “For the next sale we will be a little better, more selective when choosing the paintings and try and concentrate more on higher-end material.”
Shapiro has scheduled his next auction for spring 2008. Consignments are currently being accepted. For further information, 203-539-6024 or www.geneshapiro.com .
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