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Russians Fight Indian Billionaires for Old Master Records

"St Dominic in Prayer," an oil-on-canvas by the 16th-century Spanish painter, El Greco. Entered from the collection of the late German philanthropist, Gustav Rau, it was sold by Sotheby's in an auction of Old Master paintings in London on July 3. Source: Sotheby's via Bloomberg.

July 5 (Bloomberg) -- Russian-speaking buyers spent more than 15 million pounds ($22.6 million) at an auction as a record number of bidders from emerging economies bought Old Masters.

A Russian buyer, represented on the telephone, fought off an Asian underbidder to pay a top price of 9.2 million pounds at Sotheby’s London on July 3 for a canvas of St. Dominic by the Spanish artist El Greco. The price, almost double the high estimate, set an auction record for the 16th-century painter. The same buyer spent another 3.4 million pounds on a crucifixion scene by El Greco.

“Russians are getting into Old Masters,” the Amsterdam-based art consultant Johan Bosch van Rosenthal said. “They’re well-advised and are buying the triple-A lots. They’re spreading their wealth by buying top-quality in any area of the market.”

Though less fashionable than contemporary art, the market for historic works is attracting billionaire trophy hunters. The most desirable Old Masters have a reputation for being a more stable store of value than 21st-century pieces. New buyers are attracted by famous names and subjects with a modern, “crossover” appeal, dealers said.

Cretan-born El Greco influenced Picasso, the Surrealists and other 20th-century artists. The painting of St. Dominic hadn’t been seen at auction before, having been in the collection of the late German philanthropist Gustav Rau. Proceeds from its sale will benefit Unicef.

International Demand

Sotheby’s sale, in line with its upper estimate, raised 35 million pounds with fees from 47 lots. At least eight of these, worth 15.8 million pounds, were bought by Russian-speaking telephone bidders.

Clients from 33 countries participated in the sale with a record number of registered bidders from Asia and the Middle East, said the New York-based auction house. Buyers were found for 79 percent of the lots, slightly higher than the 78 percent at the company’s evening contemporary-art sale last week. Sotheby’s said that almost 30 percent of the works were bought by clients from the former CIS states.

The other standout result of the night was the record 5.3 million pounds paid for a rediscovered view of Avignon by the 18th-century French painter Claude-Joseph Vernet.

The artist’s only known painting of his home, this 1757 canvas hadn’t been seen at auction for more than two centuries and was valued at as much as 5 million pounds. It was bought by a bidder in the room who declined to reveal his identity.

The previous evening, Christie’s International struggled to find buyers for a 52-lot selection of Old Masters. With a smaller proportion of new-to-the market items appealing to an up-and-coming wave of international bidders, the event raised 23.9 million pounds with fees against a minimum valuation of 29.5 million pounds.

Steen, Canaletto

A painting by Jan Steen of the artist eating oysters was the priciest of the evening’s 16 casualties. Despite being kept untouched in an English country house for the last 250 years, “Easy Come, Easy Go” failed to attract any bidding after being estimated at as much as 10 million pounds, a record bracket for the 17th-century Dutch artist.

Christie’s top lot was instead the Canaletto canvas “The Molo, Venice, From the Bacino di San Marco,” which was pushed by two phone bidders to 8.5 million pounds. Not seen on the market for about 40 years, this classic picture-postcard view by the artist was all the more desirable for being in pristine condition, dealers said.

Indian Billionaire

Adar Poonawalla, son of the Indian biotech billionaire Cyrus Poonawalla, was in the room and bought two paintings of heads of bearded men. The first, catalogued being by the studio of Rembrandt, cost 59,475 pounds; the second, catalogued as a Titian, went for 781,875 pounds. Both sold for more than estimates.

With bidders thin on the ground for more affordable Old Masters, there may well be bargains to be had, particularly when works are being sold at auction without reserve prices.

An English “connoisseur’s” collection of 400 drawings, mostly Italian 17th century, is being offered today at Sotheby’s. Accumulated by the Newcastle-based academic Ralph Holland, these range in estimate from 800 pounds to 80,000 pounds. Only about a third of the 253 lots carry reserves.

(Scott Reyburn writes about the art market for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include London and New York weekend guides, Scott Reyburn on the art market, Warwick Thompson on U.K. theater, Jeremy Gerard on U.S. theater and Martin Gayford on U.K. art exhibitions.

To contact the writer on the story: Scott Reyburn in London at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at

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