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Soviet Artists Still Await Share of Auction Profit

Times Art Writer

Soviet artists fear that the Soviet Union Ministry of Culture may fail to meet its contract to pay them their share of profits from a $3.6-million Sotheby’s auction held July 7 in Moscow. Efforts to contact the Ministry of Culture in Moscow were unsuccessful, but Sotheby’s officials say they are looking into the matter and that the artists will be paid as promised.

Payment was due Sept. 7, but none of the artists has received any money, according to Grisha Bruskin, the top-selling contemporary artist in the highly publicized sale.

“Sotheby’s paid the ministry on schedule,” said Fiona Ford, press agent for the auction house in London. “We are disappointed to hear that there has been a delay, but we are quite confident that it (payment) will happen.”

Ford said that John Dowling, assistant to Sotheby’s London Chairman Lord Gowrie, flew to Moscow Thursday to check into the situation. Gowrie, who organized the unprecedented auction, is planning to go to Moscow on Wednesday for the opening of an exhibition of work by British painter Francis Bacon. If the problem hasn’t been resolved by that time, Gowrie will consult with the Soviets, Ford said. “Lord Gowrie has a personal concern in this,” she said.

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Speaking by telephone from New York, where he is working on a sculpture project, Bruskin also contended that the ministry wants to change terms of the contract so that it can pay the artists in standard rubles, instead of in hard currency and so-called gold rubles (worth more than standard rubles). Ford said she had heard such rumors but that they were unfounded.

According to a pre-sale agreement, the artists are to receive 60% of the hammer price, 10% in hard currency and the rest in gold rubles, which have a fluctuating rate but are now expected to give the artists about four times the rate of standard rubles.

The contract also stipulates that the Ministry of Culture collects 32% of the hammer price (with 30% designated for its own programs and 2% for a new cultural foundation). Sotheby’s share is the remaining 8% plus the standard 10% buyer’s commission.

According to the Washington Post, several disgruntled auction participants recently held a meeting at the Moscow studio of artist Ilya Kabakov. Eleven of the artists then sent letters to the Ministry of Culture, declaring that they would sue the government if they did not receive payment by the end of this week, the report said.

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The newspaper also quoted Sergei Popov, a senior official of the ministry, as saying that terms of payment are being “reconsidered.” Popov told a reporter that “all this talk about gold rubles was silly and whoever mentioned it is in error,” according to the report.

This statement contradicts an oral agreement made between the ministry and the artists prior to the auction. It also conflicts with announcements made by Soviet officials in an international press conference held the day before the sale.

Bruskin’s sales of six paintings totaled $865,527 including the buyer’s commission. His share of the hammer price is about $470,000. The 43-year-old artist came to the United States on an exchange program in August and subsequently extended his visa to have a group of life-size figures cast in bronze. Currently staying with a friend in New York, he said he has continued to check up on the promised payment through regular telephone calls to his wife in Moscow.

Bruskin said he said he was disappointed but not surprised at the government’s apparent failure to honor its contract with the artists. “I know them very well. There is always some deception,” he said.

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“But this is really a very stupid thing because the auction was very well publicized in the West and the Soviet Union. This goes against public opinion. On the one hand we have perestroika and glasnost , and on the other a situation like this.

“I understand that Sotheby’s has taken the initiative to do another auction of Soviet art and that Christie’s is planning a similar auction in London,” Bruskin said. “If artists don’t get paid, I think they will refuse to participate. I’m sure I will refuse. It’s very offensive, in a human sense, to see myself treated as a slave.”

Bruskin’s 32-panel painting, “Fundamental Lexicon,” brought $415,756, the top price for contemporary art at the auction. His sudden rise to stardom was spectacular, but the 28 other contemporary artists also gained unaccustomed notice and the promise of vastly increased income.

The auction of 119 items included 18 works by five artists of the early 20th-Century Russian Avant-Garde movement.

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