Billionaire Roman Abramovich and his partner, Dasha Zhukova, bought a major group of works by Ilya Kabakov, the priciest living Russian artist.
While the amount paid for the group last year hasn’t been disclosed, the asking price for the works ranged as high as $60 million, according to observers familiar with private art sales.
The group consists of about 40 paintings as well as important early albums and installations. Most of the works were made by Kabakov before he left Moscow in 1987. The artist, who lives in New York, was a founder of Moscow’s conceptualist-art movement.
“It’s one of the largest Kabakov collections in the world,” said Emilia Kabakov, the artist’s wife and collaborator since 1989, who confirmed the sale. “It’s also the most outstanding in terms of quality and art-historical significance.”
The seller was U.S. collector John L. Stewart, who spent two decades assembling the group. He didn’t return calls seeking comment. A spokesman for Zhukova and Abramovich -- his net worth of $14.7 billion ranks 59th on the Bloomberg Billionaire Index - - declined to comment, citing policy concerning the details of their private collection.
“The collection is priceless because it has many historic works that you can’t get anywhere else,” said Natalia Kolodzei, executive director of the U.S.-based Kolodzei Art Foundation, which promotes 20th-century Russian art.
Stewart has been trying to sell the Kabakov group privately for several years and its asking price kept changing, according to art dealers and collectors of Russian art.
“This collection was on the market for some time, priced in the range of $30 million to $60 million,” said Sergey Skaterschikov, the founder of Skate’s Art Market Research. “The sale price was not disclosed however it is known that the entire collection was purchased.”
Kabakov, 79, has held the title of Russia’s most expensive living artist since 2008, when his 1982 painting “Beetle” sold for 2.9 million pounds ($5.8 million at the time) at Phillips de Pury & Co. in London, now known as Phillips.
“John Stewart’s collection has several masterpieces which, were they ever to appear at auction, could have brought the same value as ‘Beetle,’” Kolodzei said.
The pieces sold included eight albums of a series called “The 10 Characters.” Created between 1968 and 1975, each album is a box of loose-leaf sheets of paper with text and pencil drawings. The albums have between 32 and 72 pages; each tells a fable and offers reflections on an artistic movement of the 20th century.
The original albums are rarely exhibited because of their fragility. Two from the “The 10 Characters” group are in the collection of Centre Pompidou in Paris.
The Stewart collection also included paintings from Kabakov’s “Holidays” series. Ten of them were shown in the “Ilya Kabakov: 1969-1998” exhibition at Bard College in 2000.
In the paintings, mundane scenes of Soviet life are offset by dozens of festive candy wrappers attached to the canvases. One of the paintings shown at Bard, “Holidays #10” (1987), sold at Phillips for 1.5 million pounds ($2.4 million) in 2011.
In 2007, Stewart sold 65 works from his Russian art collection at Phillips for 3.63 million pounds. The sale didn’t include Kabakov’s pieces.
“We knew the collection was on the market and we were concerned that it would be sold piece by piece at auction,” said Emilia Kabakov. “Now it’s saved. It has a future as a collection.”
Abramovich and Zhukova have been the Kabakovs’ patrons for years. In 2008, Zhukova’s Garage Center for Contemporary Culture organized the first retrospective of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov in Moscow.
One installation from the show, “The Red Wagon,” later entered the collection of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, as a joint gift of Abramovich, Zhukova and the Kabakovs, according to Emilia Kabakov.
Their acquisition of the Kabakov collection should have a positive effect on the artist’s market, Skaterschikov said.
“Because the collection was on the market, the artist’s liquidity was depressed,” he said. “What’s important is that they are not planning to sell.”
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