Since Russian art was reintroduced to the western art market in the late 1980s there has been a growing interest in the repatriation of Russian art of all periods, a trend powered by the growing purchasing power of Russian collectors. With this trend, previously underappreciated names are also becoming mainstream among western collectors which is only increasing the value of Russian paintings.
Valuing Russian Paintings
In many ways, Russian painting can be considered in the same way as any other work of fine art; while there is a place for market statistics and sale records, there is always a subjective, personal element to every sale, even those for the purposes of investment. In many cases the ‘wall power’ of a painting plays a big role in an auction sale, with colour, size and style all contributing to this. Russian art in particular has grappled with many national themes such as social conditions and Russian identity which may have particular appeal to those interested in Russian painting’s rich history. Condition is also something that is often visible on first inspection in an auction setting and is most significant to art from the 19th century or earlier. Cracking of paint (‘craquelure’) is closely linked to how the painting has been stored and, in many cases, can devalue the painting if found in excess. The alternative to deteriorating paint is restoration work, but this is also sometimes visible on first inspection and not always the best choice – an expert opinion is often crucial in this decision. Beyond a first inspection, the face of a painting can also be examined under UV light which will reveal imperfections and restoration.
Labels, Marks and Provenance
The reverse of a painting can sometimes be just as important to the sale value as the front. While the appearance of a painting is often what a buyer will be initially attracted to, labels, markings and signatures are used to tell the history of a piece, its ‘provenance’, and help in confirming or denying its authenticity. For non-Russian speakers, an expert examination is crucial here, although pieces may well have been exhibited or sold outside Russia at some point. In the context of the 1917 Revolution and the ensuing Soviet suppression of nonconformist art, the provenance of Russian paintings can be particularly difficult to follow. This information can be combined with the condition of the canvas, lining and nails to authenticate the age and origin of a painting, adding to claims to provenance. From the perspective of condition, removing a painting from its frame and examining its lining can also be worthwhile for older paintings; original condition is usually desirable.
The Market for Russian Art
The market is always the ultimate arbiter of painting value and the market for Russian painting is going from strength to strength as collectors from Russia and other former Soviet states become further involved in the art market. It is important to note that a retail price of a piece from a specialist gallery may be far higher than what a painting could achieve at an auction and as such valuations from different people can have different meanings. Valuing a painting for the secondary market generally focuses on market statistics and finding a comparable past sale; the stronger the similarities to a recent sale by the artist in question, the better an idea we can get of its value. Elements like subject matter, date of production, date of sale, size and medium are all taken into account when considering how alike two sales are likely to be. This can be done from your own living room through auction record websites or, more reliably, by an experienced valuations specialist with knowledge of the market. The growth of the Russian art market has meant it is sometimes described as having high ‘liquidity’, meaning pieces will usually not have trouble selling, thanks to increasing demand and so now may be a better time than ever to sell Russian paintings.