Joseph Stalin created Socialist Realism by decree in 1932 to glorify communism through art. Now Vladimir Putin’s capitalists can’t get enough of it.
Demand for painters once hailed by the Soviet dictator as “engineers of the soul” has never been higher, in part driven by a resurgence of patriotism and pangs of nostalgia in Russia, which is locked in the tensest geopolitical confrontation since the Cold War over the conflict in Ukraine.
Transport tycoon Andrey Filatov, who’s amassed one of the largest hoards in the style, says works of Soviet revolutionary romanticism are offering far greater returns than those of masters such as Pablo Picasso and Paul Gauguin. Filatov, 43, says some of his investments have doubled in a year, lifting the value of his collection to as much as half a billion dollars.
“It’s the most profitable investment you can imagine,” Filatov said in an interview in London, where he recently held an exhibit of World War II creations at the Saatchi Gallery that featured a 1940 portrait of Stalin. Soviet paintings that can be bought for $1 million now, amid Russia’s first recession in six years, can produce a “tenfold” return, he said.
Sales at the twice-yearly auctions of Russian art in London, which attract mainly Russian bidders, are at the highest since 2008. That year, an avant-garde piece by Kazimir Malevich went for $60 million at a Sotheby’s sale in New York, a record price for a Russian work of art.
Christie’s, Sotheby’s and specialist auctioneer MacDougalls, which together sold 95 million pounds ($146 million) of Russian works last year, kick off the next round Monday, starting at Christie’s.
Records are falling across the art world as the richest investors keep getting richer. The top 400 billionaires have added about $275 billion in wealth this year to May 27, boosting their worth to $4.3 trillion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. The 20 richest Russians have fared even better, gaining about 15 percent to $210 billion.
A Picasso fetched $179.4 million from an unidentified bidder on May 11, the most ever for a painting at auction. A Gauguin reportedly changed hands for a record $300 million in a private sale three months earlier.
With 19th and early 20th century Russian works harder to find, more rich Russians are turning to Socialist Realism for reasons that aren’t only commercial, according to Christina Krasnyanskaya, owner of Moscow’s Heritage gallery, which specializes in Soviet art and design.
“Soviet art was forgotten for many years,” Krasnyanskaya said. “The trend is now going toward this Soviet theme because of nostalgia.”
While no known example of Socialist Realism has ever sold for more than $5 million, the market has great “prospects” over the next decade or two, said Yury Tyukhtin, owner of the Sovcom auction house in Moscow.
At least one American collector, Ray Johnson, was ahead of the curve. In 1989, two years before the Cold War ended with the demise of the Soviet Union, Johnson sent a team of historians and advisers to Moscow in search of Soviet masterpieces. He now owns the largest private collection of Socialist Realism outside of the former Soviet Union, at a museum in Minneapolis, according to its website.
Filatov, who’s worth at least $500 million, not including his collection, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, said he plans to open a museum of his own in London or another major city abroad to raise awareness of unsung Russian masters.
The investor owns stakes in rail freighter Globaltrans Investment Plc, port operator Global Ports Investments Plc and heads Russia’s Chess Federation, another of his hobbies.
His eye for art that exalts the proletariat may be second only to that of banker Alexey Ananiev, who opened his own museum in Moscow in 2011 to house about 500 of his acquisitions.
“These are masterpieces of world art and not just banknotes that are printed every day,” said Russian billionaire Farkhad Akhmedov, who owns about 150 works of Socialist Realism and last month paid $46.5 million for an Abstract Expressionist painting by Mark Rothko. “They depict the Soviet era I grew up in, which will never be repeated.”
Stalinist art is a world away from the avant-garde period before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution that produced some of Russia’s most-acclaimed painters, including Malevich, Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova.
Its main pioneer -- and now top-selling artist -- was Aleksandr Deyneka, whose depictions of muscular female and male athletes embodied the dynamic Soviet ideal. Yuri Pimenov, another artist from the period, is known for his “man in the city” themes portraying “happy and polite” Muscovites, according to the Tretyakov Gallery in the Russian capital.
In the early 1990s, paintings by Deyneka or Pimenov could be had for $5,000 to $50,000 and those of post-Stalinist artists for $1,000 to $10,000, said Sovcom’s Tyukhtin. Prices started to surge during the oil-fueled economic boom that accompanied Putin’s rise to power in 2000 and now many of these paintings can go for several million dollars apiece, he said.
Even those prices “look very cheap,” compared to other world names, said Catherine MacDougall, director of MacDougall’s auction house.
Deyneka and Pimenov in particular are incredibly hard to find in private hands, meaning the search is on for other acquisition targets, according to Sarah Mansfield, head of Russian art at Christie’s.
Viktor Popkov, who painted in the so-called Severe style that emerged after Stalin’s death in 1953, is increasingly appearing at auction, Mansfield said. A piece from the Severe period by Georgy Nissky broke a record for postwar Soviet art when it sold for 1.76 million pounds last June, more than double the presale estimate.
But what sets Socialist Realism apart from other Russian styles is the “element of unpredictability,” said Frances Asquith, head of Russian paintings at Sotheby’s
“The image that really appeals to you will often appeal to a broad range of collectors,” Asquith said. “That’s what drives up any price at auction.”
That’s not a position everyone is buying.
James Butterwick, a London-based dealer specializing in Russia, called Socialist Realism “junk” that no serious collector from any country would touch “with a barge pole.”
Russia’s best contribution to art remains the avant-garde painters, who were “complete revolutionary heroes,” said Ivor Braka, a London-based dealer who trades mainly in Impressionist and modern European artists.
“Still, who knows what people are prepared to buy?” Braka said. “I’m not saying Socialist Realism art might not start getting absolutely epic amounts of money.”