Rich Russians flock to UK for multimillion art sale

Vastly expensive Russian artwork will attract rich buyers to the U.K. today, where Russia Art Week kicks off.

"We have an enormous amount of clients coming over from Russia and elsewhere to be part of it," Sarah Mansfield, head of the Russian art department at Christie's auction house, told CNBC via telephone interview.

Landscape with bridge, Kislovodsk by Aristarkh Lentulov
Landscape with bridge, Kislovodsk by Aristarkh Lentulov

A flurry of cash will change hands between May 30 and June 6, amid arresting paintings, intricate icons, Faberge jewels and objects and other works of art. When Russian Art Week was last held in November 2013, a staggering £55 million ($92 million) was spent.

But the upcoming event could be the biggest yet. Organizers are expected a record-breaking number of visitors, partly because it is being held as part of the U.K.- Russia Year of Culture.

London's biggest galleries and auction houses – Christie's, Bonhams, McDougall's and Sotheby's – will hold sales from Monday onwards.

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The week kicks off with Christie's Russian art sale, where there will be 303 lots with a combined estimated price of £11 million.

Leading the sale is an avant-garde painting entitled "Landscape with bridge" by 20th century artist Aristarkh Lentulov, which could fetch anywhere between £1,500,000 and £2,500,000.

"Lentuolov is one of those names that you really have to have as a Russian art collector," Mansfield told CNBC.

"Avant garde works by Russian masters are increasingly rare. There were very few produced, and very few are held in private hands today."

Signal Fires of Peace by Nikolai Roerich Konstantinovich Roeric.
Signal Fires of Peace by Nikolai Roerich Konstantinovich Roeric.

Another painting generating a buzz among buyers is Nikolai Roerich's "The signal fires of peace", which is on sale at Bonhams, and could go for £0.8-1.2 million.

"It's a museum quality work – to get a work of this quality on sale to the public is unusual," Theodora Clarke, director of Russian Art Week, told CNBC via telephone.

A Russian affair

Russian artwork has only become readily available to international buyers since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The market has grown up enormously over the last ten years, but it still remains a distinctly Russian, rather than global, affair.

"Most of the significant buyers will be Russian-speaking… what's interesting is that we have European and American buyers participating," Mansfield told CNBC.

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While the international Russian art market initially centred on Faberge silver, enamel and porcelain, around 2003/2004 this changed and there is now a lot of enthusiasm for paintings too.

"People who once collected outside of the category now have the confidence to buy in Russian art," Mansfield told CNBC.

But despite its growing international prominence, Russian works generally attract Russian buyers with a strong streak of patriotism.

"About 90 percent of the Russian Art Market is brought by Russian collectors," Clarke said.

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There's a sense of Russian oligarchs, businessmen and investors buying back their heritage and returning to their homeland.

An example of this is the Faberge museum which opened in St Petersburg last November. It houses thousands of pieces by Faberge, which belong to the Link of Times foundation, established by Russian businessman Viktor Vekselberg. He amassed the collection with the intention of returning it to Russia for public viewing.

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