It's that time of year again when the wealth of the world pours into art in London. The auction houses, great and small, organise their biggest shows. Russian art is as big as it gets, and this week has both Sotheby's and Christie's arranging 'Important Russian Art' auctions. It's a good opportunity for those of us without the eyewatering bank balances required to purchase this art to take a look at what's on offer.
I went to Sotheby's first. There weren't too many people around. An elderly elegant duchess accompanied by a somewhat energetic young man paced her way past the Fechins and Larionovs and Goncharovas and Sudeikins that were displayed handily on sundry walls. I followed them around as they cast their eyes over the price estimates ('half million, this one' and 'one point five, that one'). I'm happy to report that I recognised not just the names of many of the artists but also individual works. In fact, two of Zinaida Serebriakova's portraits were on sale - and I had blogged about them.
Suddenly Lado Gudiashvili appears to be all the rage. There was a large canvas of his, all multicoloured landscape of sinuous trees and river and a damsel. One of the prize exhibits, I understand.
A cartoon by Annenkov was hung upside down at Sotheby's. A punter pointed it out to an attendant. Her first response was, "No, it's fine." Her next was, "Why do you say so?"
He said, "Look at the signature."
She didn't see it immediately. Then she called for someone else to take the piece down, and the two of them carried it off in considerable style.
I attended the Alexander Volkov exhibition at Christie's a few months ago. Wonderful stuff. Its curator, Meruyert Kaliyeva, was kind enough to invite me to their Russian Winter event.
I thought I might see her there. The place, however, was seething with wealth, only some of which appeared interested in the art hanging on the walls. Tough-looking men, paunchy men, young jabbering men, and impossibly lanky models, nearly all Russian, milled about. Years after tall women invaded the City of London, there they were - every one of them over six feet tall and ravishingly beautiful.
The models formed an impassable barrier at the dessert table. Through occasional gaps I caught sight of macaroons and chocolate tartlets and sundry pastries. I am proud to say that I managed to snag a macaroon through a gap when one of the models inhaled.
Christie's lots were not different from Sotheby's - that is to say, the artists represented were pretty much the same. Fechin, Sudeikin, Goncharova, Larionov. Did I see any Vereshchagins? Maybe those were at Sotheby's. There were coy references to 'important private collection in France' and 'Kapitsa collection, Moscow'. There were lists of owners and exhibitions to establish provenance. There was also a large numbers of paintings and sketches by a Maria Iakunchikova, whom I'd never heard about. Her family was selling off her works. Given that she died aged 32 more than a century ago, she probably is not complaining too much.
I was waylaid by a desi dude while I peered at a Maliavin sketch. We rapidly went through the usual litany - 'Are you from?' 'Do you know?' 'Where did you study?' - and established, oddly enough, that we had no mutual acquaintances whatsoever.
He was a corporate lawyer, he said. He had no interest in Russian art, he said. He grew up in an artistic family, he added. His mother is an acknowledged expert on batik, he explained. He dismissed South-east Asian batik as plagiarism of the Indian variety. He pointed out that Manmohan Singh was recently sighted wearing a bright orange batik shirt at an ASEAN conference. Everybody's wondering what happened to our sober Prime Minister, he marvelled.