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Russian elite scour globe for art of the motherland

1 February 2008
Reuters Life!

Russian art is gathering international attention and hefty price tags as the country's elite buy their motherland's masterpieces away from home.

Avant-garde painters Rodchenko and Malevich, whose paintings symbolized early twentieth century Russia, sit in auction houses in New York and London, from where they are snatched up by nostalgic Russians for millions of dollars.

"The new class is rising, it's accumulating tremendous wealth, but there is a lack of symbols to identify themselves with," Mikhail Kamensky, director of auction house Sotheby's Russian division in Moscow, told Reuters.

"Russians are the biggest buyers of Russian art. They want to build up a new reputation in a wealthy international community and they do this through Russian cultural symbols," said Kamensky. Sotheby's set up its Moscow branch last May.

Kamensky talked with Russian art lovers in a revamped 19th century exhibit hall at a business conference organized by Troika Dialog brokerage this week in Moscow, which dedicated a session to art as business.

"It's incredible how many museums are popping up in Russia and how high auction prices are getting abroad. Russians want art on their walls of what they saw in childhood," said Georgy Nikich, curator of Moscow's Cultural Policy Institute.

The conference lined its halls with large paintings by Russian living artist Evgeny Chubarov, whose abstract works recently fetched hundreds of thousands of pounds at Sotheby's.

The auction house – which was established in London over 260 years ago and now has branches across the world – sold Russian art worth around 70 million pounds ($139.3 million) last year in Britain alone.

Most went to extremely wealthy Russians in London, which hosts a growing, elite class including billionaire and Chelsea football club owner Roman Abramovich.

Christie's auctioneers, which started in London but has been lately moving into emerging markets China and India, sold a record purchase of a Faberge egg last year for 9 million pounds.

The Russian businessman who bought the translucent pink egg in London called his purchase inexpensive.

"Like its energy market, Russian art is about understanding the home bias," said American art critic Porter Anderson, referring to the Kremlin's ever-tightening grip over its strategic energy sector, where foreign firms stand little chance of competing.

Cultural popularity

Despite Russia's political tensions with the West, facets of Russian culture are growing rapidly and prospering as the country undergoes its longest economic boom for more than a generation, fuelled by record oil prices.

The Soviet Union may have collapsed less than two decades ago, but clothes by Russian designers have been spotted on Hollywood stars and next month may see a Russian win at the Oscars.

The "From Russia" art collection at London's Royal Academy of Arts opened last month and has become the museum's most popular collection to date.

But Russia's growing cultural popularity abroad could damage those at home.

"So many people are buying that we're seeing Russian collections get impoverished in our museums," said Irina Antonova, director of Moscow's Pushkin State of Museum of Arts.

"We lost some items recently as others had higher bids than us. We don't know how this will evolve, it's worrying".