Buyers are trolling for Romanov heirlooms





Russian oligarchs and bigwigs who buoyed, then fled, the local art market, are gingerly stepping back in. But rather than embracing the latest contemporary artists, they're chasing the collections of an earlier elite class—before the Revolution.

London's chief auction houses Sotheby's and Christie's International plan to sell at least $36 million worth of Russian art, including a rediscovered trove of Fabergé cigarette cases owned by the younger son of Czar Alexander II. The series of sales, called Russia Week, begins Monday.

Like many collecting categories, the Russian art market was gutted by the recession, but price levels for top artists like Ilya Repin have begun to stabilize, in part because of a fresh influx of Russian and Ukrainian buyers from banking and political circles. Repin was a Ukrainian who became Russia's leading late 19th-century realist. Newcomers include Alina Aivazova, the wife of Kiev's mayor Leonid Kosmos Chernovetsky, who in June paid boutique auctioneer MacDougall's a record $2.3 million for Repin's "Portrait of Madame Alisa Rivoir with a Lapdog."

Sotheby's says at least 38% of the buyers at its June round of London art sales were new to its Russian department. Nearly a quarter of the buyers were newcomers to the auction house altogether—a signal that Eastern Europeans may be investing more cash in hard assets like art.

From Moscow to Kiev to Kazakh expatriates living in London, demand is growing once more for Russian silver, gilded porcelain vases and 19th-century paintings of Cossack soldiers and peasant women in colorful head scarves. Less popular now are those contemporary stars who enjoyed huge price jumps during the market's peak like Ilya Kabakov, whose 1982 painting of an insect, "Beetle," sold for a record $5.8 million at Phillips de Pury in 2008. Kabakov is missing from this latest round, and auction houses have tailored the latest offerings to suit traditional tastes...


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