French ships departing the Black Sea, Ivan Aivazovsky. Image courtesy of Bonhams

Russian Art Week: Not just for the collector

Theodora Clarke, Director of Russian Art Week, explains why the June sales of Russian art in London should not be missed by fans of Russian art and culture in the UK

Friday, May 30, 2014 - 5:00pm
Ilaria Parogni

Between 30 May and 7 June 2014 art enthusiasts in London will be treated to Russian Art Week, a "Russian art fair” featuring a varied programme of Russian cultural events to coincide with the sales of Russian art in London traditionally held in June by the four main auction houses – Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Bonhams and MacDougalls (the second round takes place in November). Part of the official programme for the UK-Russia Year of Culture, Russian Art Week is the brainchild of Russian Art and Culture Editor and art expert Theodora Clarke. We sat down with her to find out more about the event and the appeal of Russian art in the UK.


What is trending in the world of Russian art at the moment?

In terms of what the buyers are looking for, I’d say that paintings by the artists of the late 19th century and early 20th century are those which go for the record prices. If you look at the records which were broken in RAW in recent years, one example that stands out is Nicholas Roerich, with the highest selling Russian artwork sold last year at Bonhams for nearly £8 million. The Russian avant garde period is very popular. Also interesting is the story and the background of any work– those which have a good provenance, for which we can really track the history of the object. Some of these works have come from the Russian royal family and are bound up with Tsarist history. That is what makes them so appealing to collectors.

How does Russian contemporary art fare among collectors?

Russian contemporary art is still relatively new on the scene. I have just got back from St Petersburg and people there are preparing for Manifesta, the contemporary art biennale, and I think that this is a major turning point, which will really put Russia on the map in the contemporary art scene. The buyers’ market for contemporary art in Russia is still quite small and looking at the number of galleries, there are only a handful that specialise in contemporary art. Russian cities are very different from London or New York, where you have hundreds of contemporary galleries.


Director Theodora Clarke at the November 2013 edition of Russian Art Week. Source: Personal archive


Who buys Russian art?

90% of buyers are Russian collectors buying Russian works. The remaining 10% are international collectors who buy the work of renowned artists like Kandinsky or Chagall, and those are usually bought by museums and collectors around the world. This is why they set such high prices for these lots. It will be interesting to see with the current political situation how many Russian collectors will come to London. Of course they can do telephone bidding and online, so I am sure the appetite will still be very healthy.

Have the strained bilateral relations between Russia and the UK over the past few months affected your work?

It has not affected our programme. We planned our events many months in advance, long before anything happened in Ukraine. We are victims of slightly bad timing, but I believe that, when political relations are impaired, culture becomes increasingly important. Initiatives like RAW will become even more important as a way to improve communication between the two countries.

What would you encourage visitors of RAW not to miss?

Some people find galleries quite intimidating – they don’t like to walk in if they are not a buyer. But one of the things with RAW is that you have world-class paintings which could well end up in private collections abroad or in museums not in the UK. What people do not realise is that even if you are not a collector and don’t have £10m to spend on a Kandinsky, these are free exhibitions. So I really recommend people to walk down Bond Street, go to the sales to look at these exhibitions. On top of that, there will be concerts, talks and performances. Hopefully there is something for everybody, from those who know nothing about Russia but would like to find out more to avid collectors and museum curators.

What is the message you want to deliver with RAW?

Our main objective is to make Russian art much better known to the West and to encourage visitors to go to Russia. One of the reasons why the UK-Russia Year of Culture concept works so well is that when we have Shakespeare, they have Pushkin; when we have Bacon, they have Kandinsky. We are two countries with centuries of history and an enormous wealth of creativity.



Russian Art Week runs from 30 May to 7 June 2014. Download your free guide here