Sotheby’s Art Sale in U.S.S.R. ‘Landmark Event’

Times Art Writer

Art professionals are greeting news of the Soviet Union’s first international auction of modern and contemporary art, at Sotheby’s July 7 sale in Moscow, as an important breakthrough in an untapped market. “It’s a real coup for Sotheby’s,” said Stephanie Barron, curator of modern and contemporary art at the County Museum of Art.

“This is the most exciting time for relations between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. With every month that glasnost goes by, it becomes harder to turn the faucet off,” agreed Maurice Tuchman, a senior curator who, with Barron, organized the County Museum’s 1980 watershed exhibition, “The Avant-Garde in Russia, 1910-1930.”

The two curators said the auction news fits with recent trends among Soviets to recognize their own artists and to expose them to a Western audience. Barron recently conducted a tour of LACMA collections for Soviet cultural ministers who indicated a strong interest in Russian modern artists represented in the Los Angeles collection.

“There’s a real thawing in their attitude, and they are planning major exhibitions” for long-neglected artists, she said.


John E. Bowlt, a noted American scholar of Russian modern art, is also working on an exhibition of works by Russian Avant-Garde artist Pavel Filonov to be shown both in the United States and the Soviet Union, according to Tuchman and Barron.

Sotheby’s plans to auction about 100 paintings by contemporary Soviet artists and members of the Russian Avant-Garde (1910-1932) in an evening sale at the Armand Hammer Center for International Trade in Moscow. Consisting of works priced between $3,500 and $35,000, the auction is expected to total about $1 million in sales.

“It is really a landmark event that opens the Russian art market,” said Michael L. Ainslie, president and chief executive office of Sotheby’s, in a telephone interview.

“The willingness (of the Soviets) to promote the whole concept is just fantastic. It’s not as if we are pushing them,” he enthused, noting that a bilingual catalogue, expected to be “an enormous seller in Russia,” will be “a landmark document” containing profiles of the artists that will introduce them to the international art market.

The Soviet Union has held two “internal” auctions of contemporary art during the last two years, Ainslie said, but the July affair will be the first to involve an international audience. Western buyers, bidding in person and by telephone, are expected to predominate because payment must be made in pounds sterling; Soviet citizens--though welcome at the sale--have limited access to foreign currency.

Sotheby’s plans to promote the auction, which may become an annual event, by offering tours of Soviet museums and artists’ studios to bidders who travel to Moscow.

Works to be auctioned are all consigned by Russian artists and private collectors, according to Ainslie. He said that Sotheby’s specialists compiled a list of preferred artists, then Soviet coordinators submitted works for consideration and Sotheby’s made final selections.

Ainslie expects the auction to contain “a range of styles, from realism--though not the old Social Realism--to quite abstract, contemporary paintings. Our experts feel that a significant number of the artists are world-class painters,” he said.


The sale will follow Sotheby’s familiar format, except that it will be conducted in both English and Russian, according to Ainslie. Buyers will be charged the usual 10% commission, but the net of the seller’s commission will be returned to the consigning collectors and artists. Ainslie said that Sotheby’s does not expect to make a profit from this first auction because of expenses for travel and organization.

Considering the relatively modest $1-million total estimate, Barron speculated that the sale probably would not include major Russian Avant-Garde paintings, currently priced from around $150,000 to $300,000. “Sotheby’s may just be testing the waters,” she said, “but there is a lot of good material in private collections in the Soviet Union and the potential is phenomenal.”

A selection of works to be auctioned will begin an international tour in mid-May at Sotheby’s in New York and move on to London, Zurich and Paris.