Art at auction: What is in demand in the Russian market?

Catherine McDougall: "For me, art is something that you can bring into your world and live with." Source: Kommersant

Catherine McDougall: "For me, art is something that you can bring into your world and live with." Source: Kommersant

On the eve of Russian Art Week in London, Catherine McDougall, founder of MacDougall’s Auction House, told RBTH about the trends in the sale of paintings and where to look for the most beautiful winter landscapes.

RBTH: How did you get into the auction business?

Catherine McDougall: In our previous lives, my husband and I were financiers. William McDougall led one of the largest investment funds, with about $4 billion in capital, and I worked on the strategy for Russia.

We were not dealers and did not sell paintings, but already back then, we were collectors, and participated in many auctions. At one point, we decided to open our own auction house.

RBTH: MacDougall's House works in the Russian art market with suchveteransas Sotheby's and Christie's. Do you have some specific niche?

MacDougall's Auction House was founded in London in 2004, by the husband and wife team of William and Catherine McDougall. It specialises in the sale of Russian art, and has representative offices in Moscow and Paris. MacDougall's Auction House has set several world records, including in auctioning works of I. Repin, Z. Serebryakova, and K. Petrov-Vodkin.

C.M.: Rather specific tactics. I very often see our competitors organising an auction for one work of art - and it is enough to sell just one painting for $10 million and you can celebrate success.

We have always stuck to a desire to experiment. We had up to 700 lots in some auctions, and three catalogues. That’s a lot, but this is a tried and tested brand. We attract large numbers of works by natural flow, which are then offered for sale.

RBTH: When did you realise that your name was starting to work for you?

C.M.: I’ve never yet felt this. If I relax and spend a whole day reading a book or go to parties, the name will cease to work for me.

RBTH: In Moscow, you meet with the dealers and do your sales in London. Is that right?

C.M.: No. Moscow collectors built up their collections on their own and they sell very little and reluctantly. They are mostly buyers. If anything is sold in Moscow, it is mostly by relatives who inherited a collection from a deceased family member.

Or people who accidentally bought a piece of art for a song, for example, during the collapse of the Soviet empire in the 1990s. But in general, America and Europe are selling, and Russia is buying.

RBTH: Let's talk about the auctions that are coming in November. Which will be the hottest sellers?

C.M.: I think (Leon) Bakst should sell well, we have his 1.5 metre painting “Bathers on the Lido” from 1909. We have a beautiful Isaak Brodsky, a good 1916 portrait of Samuelson.

I am really interested in finding out how the Vladimir Stozharov will sell. It is priced at $80,000. This is 1960s Russian realism.

RBTH: These works also came to you from people who accidentally purchased or inherited them?

C.M.: Stozharov came from America. A man bought a very large collection in Russia in the 1990s, and is now selling it. Brodsky was purchased at Sotheby’s in 1994, and since then has been in a French collection.

Bakst was originally part of a collection owned by his niece, and in 1974 was purchased, again at Sotheby’s, from an English collection.

RBTH: In selecting items, are you guided by personal preference or is it just a business?

C.M.: An auction is primarily a trading floor. Personal preferences in the selection of collections have never been the norm and I was never guided by this. But I am very often guided by my own intuition and understanding.

RBTH: What trends does your intuition see?

C.M.: In the near future, demand for socialist realism will significantly increase, if it is correct to use this term, and the art of the second half of the 20th century.

RBTH: Russian avant-garde always seems popular and old classic paintings.

C.M.: They will continue to be in demand, but this is not the point. If you open a catalogue from Sotheby’s or Christie’s, you will find practically no works from the second half of the 20th century.

I think that is the next step in the development of the market. At one time, we were the first to hold a specialised rich graphic auction. Before that, no-one ever auctioned graphics and it was thought that Russians would not buy them.

And it is true, Russians did not buy until a few years ago, when suddenly the demand rose. Back then, this was one of the most rapidly developing sectors.

RBTH: What period are you talking about?

C.M.: Before 2008. After the crisis, everything died for 3–4 years.In the last year, we are starting to see a revival, but a slow one, in this sector.

Before that, we tried icons, but these were rather specialised auctions. This sector practically died after the crisis, but is now going through a new development.

RBTH: Are foreigners interested in Russian lots?

C.M.: There is interest in specific artists and directions, like Diaghilev, Ballet Russes or icons. Foreigners are more interested in these than the Russians.

However, taken as a whole, the collecting of art is a domestic passion – they are buying their own, because these are images from their childhoods and they bring people pleasure.

Russians from Russia buy green forest scenes, still-life paintings, because they don’t get enough summer, and Russians from Monaco – buy winter landscapes, because there, they have no winter.

RBTH: Do you also deal in contemporary art? Are you interested in it?

C.M.: No. For me, art is something that you can bring into your world and live with. For example, a creation in the form of mountains of old slippers – it is not my style.

Some might like it and all power to them! But I cannot imagine how I can bring a mountain of dirty slippers into my space, into my personal life.

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