Russian Painting Tops $6.3 Million Sale of Emerging-Market Art

``Bicho'' by Lygia Clark. The 1960 aluminium sculpture sold in Phillips de Pury & Co's ``BRIC'' auction in London for 367,250 pounds. It had an estimate of between 180,000 pounds and 220,000 pounds. Source: Phillips de Pury & Co. via Bloomberg

A painting by the Russian artist Erik Bulatov last night was the top lot in a 4.1 million-pound ($6.3 million) auction of art from some of the world’s fastest-growing economies.

The Non-Conformist artist’s Cyrillic word painting “ENTRANCE -- NO ENTRANCE” fetched 713,250 pounds at the first sale of contemporary works from Brazil, Russia, India and China. Phillips de Pury & Co.’s 32-lot evening session of its inaugural “BRIC’’ event, held at London’s Saatchi Gallery, made a total with fees exactly in line with the presale upper estimate, based on hammer prices. Seventy-two percent of the material found buyers, with all the successful lots falling to telephone bids.

The sale comes after auction prices for works by some contemporary Chinese, Indian and Russian artists had declined as much as 50 percent from the peak of the market in early 2008, with dealers now looking for signs of recovery.

“Russia and China were strong,’’ Roger Tatley, senior director at the London-based Alison Jacques Gallery, said in an interview. “The Saatchi venue was very elegant. I’m sure it was a great benefit to have the auction hung like a museum show, though it was unusual to have everything bought on the telephone. That might have had something to do with the volcanic ash grounding planes.”

Bulatov’s 1994 to 1995 work, a second version of a 1970s painting now in the Pompidou Center in Paris, was one of just half a dozen lots that attracted bidding from the 100-strong audience in the room. A woman wearing grey five-inch heels speaking Russian into a cellphone was the underbidder at a price that was more than double the 350,000-pound low estimate.


The well-heeled Russian-speaker was also the underbidder when Komar & Melamid’s tongue-in-cheek 1972 canvas “Meeting Between Solzhenitsyn and Boell at Rostropovich’s Country House’’ sold for 657,250 pounds, more than four times the 150,000-pound upper estimate.

Zhang Xiaogang’s 2006 painting “Amnesia and Memory” was the most expensive of the Chinese contemporary works at 385,250 pounds. This was valued at 220,000 pounds to 320,000 pounds.

In recent years, Brazilian contemporary artists haven’t attracted the same levels of speculative investment as their Chinese, Indian and Russian counterparts.

Lygia Clark‘s 1960 Neo-Concretist aluminum sculpture “Bicho” was one of just three Brazilian works in the evening sale. Competition from at least four telephone bidders generated a record price of 367,250 pounds, double the low estimate. The previous auction high for Clark was the 59,000 euros ($79,600) paid for another 1960s aluminum sculpture at a sale in Germany in June 2006.

BRIC Visitors

“This was the first time that a cultural institution has concentrated on the art of BRIC countries,’’ Simon de Pury, chairman of Phillips, said in an interview after the auction. “Putting a sale together like a museum show definitely created excitement.’’ The week-long viewing had attracted 2,500 visitors a day, said de Pury.

India was the one country of the quartet to attract patchy bidding. Four out of eight Indian lots failed, with Subodh Gupta’s trademark 2006 painting of metal pots and pans, “Idol Thief 1,” estimated at 320,000 pounds to 380,000 pounds, the most prominent unsold. Two similar paintings by Gupta sold at auction for $1.4 million and $1.2 million respectively in 2008, according to the database Artnet.

(Scott Reyburn writes about the art market for Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)