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  • Russian Collectors Turn to Contemporary Art, Spawning Galleries
    August 10, 2005 bloomberg L.P.

    Aug. 10 (Bloomberg) -- Russia's new rich, already spending millions building collections of art and antiques mainly from the 19th and 20th centuries, are moving into contemporary art.

    Five world-class galleries, the RuArts Gallery, Stella Art Gallery, the Gary Tatintsian gallery, Nashi Khudozhnikiy and the Marina Gisich Gallery have opened in Moscow and St. Petersburg in the past two years to meet growing demand. Prices are modest, rarely rising above $10,000 per work. Pieces by top names, such as Georgi Guryanov or Alexander Zakharov, may reach $20,000.

    Three of these gallery owners are women with wealthy husbands. They came to the art world with little experience and knowledge. Yet what they lack in experience, they are compensating for with enthusiasm, cash and strong teams of experts and curators, says Nic Iljine, Director of Corporate Development for Europe and the Middle East at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, based in Frankfurt.

    ``These Moscow galleries are large spaces, very modern, with climate control, security and lighting systems as good as any gallery in Chelsea, Paris or London,'' Iljine said in an e-mail. ``The owners are quite serious and certainly ambitious.''

    Europe's second-most-populous city, Moscow has one of the highest concentration of billionaires in the world -- 27, according to Forbes magazine. Oil and metals income, boosted by prices at record highs, has transformed the Russian capital into a construction boomtown and the new rich want art to furnish their houses and apartments.

    Building Collections

    Those like Igor Markin, who see art collecting as an intellectual exercise and build with an eye to theme and content, are rarer.

    Since Markin, the 38-year-old owner of Moscow plastics manufacturer Proma, Proplex & Realit, bought his first piece of contemporary art 12 years ago, he has spent about $3 million on a collection of 600 works. Among the more prominent are ``Road'' by Eric Bulatov, ``Two Vases'' by Dmitri Krasnopevtsev, and ``Cubes'' by Vladimir Veisberg.

    ``The Russian contemporary art market is not that big now -- about $10 million annually -- but interest is growing, and in the near future wealthy people will learn to appreciate such art and they will begin to buy,'' said Markin, who runs the Web site, http://www.art4u.ru . He plans to spend $2.5 million to build his own museum, he said in an e-mail.

    Mapplethorpe, Warhol

    In the past year, Russians have bought works by Robert Mapplethorpe, Alex Katz, Ilya Kabakov and Andy Warhol, the galleries said. Stella Art sold three Kabakov works for $1 million.

    ``The contemporary art market in Moscow is ripening fast,'' said Iljine, pointing to ``the fact that people like Katharine Burton of Christie's Contemporary Art holds lectures and round tables in Moscow on `building a collection.'''

    Burton said that she has made several trips to Russia in the past year to lecture students, art scholars, and collectors and that she found Russia's infant contemporary scene to be vibrant and ``growing bigger and bigger.''

    She cautioned, though, that while there are many Russians with great wealth, purchasing contemporary art is an activity limited to a small circle of people in any country. For now, Christie's is making ``important research for how we want to develop in Russia,'' Burton said.

    ``Christie's has every intention of establishing a permanent presence in Russia; we're moving slowly, but firmly, to make sure we're there to stay,'' she said.

    Foreign Art

    Collectors like Markin give Burton reason to be optimistic.

    ``The market could possibly grow dramatically in the next few years,'' Markin said. ``And most likely due to the import of foreign contemporary art.''

    The latest Moscow contemporary gallery is RuArts, owned by Marianna Sardarova, the wife of a businessman with interests in natural gas. She has about 120 works in her personal collection, of which almost 70 are contemporary, while the remainder is Soviet-era non-conformists. Among the contemporary artists she collects are Sergei Bugayev (who goes by the pseudonym Africa), Andrei Popov, Igor Vyshnyakov and Zakharov.

    ``I began by collecting classical art, but contemporary art is more interesting because you have the chance to discover an artist,'' said Sardarova, sitting in her spartan yet spectacular four-floor gallery in downtown Moscow. ``Collecting is like a game for me, and I become really involved.''

    If Russians can't supply the demand, there are plenty of foreign and Russian emigre artists offering their work.

    Kabakov Sales

    RuArts's competitor, Stella Art Gallery, recently signed an exclusive contract with the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation for the sale of the late artist's works in Russia. Last year, the Guggenheim Museum and the State Hermitage Museum chose Stella Art to do the first major exhibition of the Russian-born U.S. conceptualist, Ilya Kabakov, in his native land.

    Just after the exhibition opened, Stella brokered the sale of three Kabakov works for almost $1 million. It also reported selling a Warhol piece for $400,000.

    RuArts director Sabine Orudjeva said Russian galleries try to secure an exclusive agreement with an artist to guarantee quality and authenticity, helping them to build trust with clients. Russian buyers are still feeling their way, unsure of the criteria that defines fine contemporary art.

    ``The small group of Russians interested in contemporary art still are not sure what they want, but there's a lot of interest in new forms of printing, mixed media, and photography,'' Orudjeva said in an interview at the gallery. ``Those with high- tech execution in their work attract more interest.''

    Money in Moscow

    Since the money is in Moscow, the market remains primarily in that city. St. Petersburg has only two world-class contemporary art galleries: D-137, headed by Olga Kudratsyeva, and the Marina Gisich Gallery.

    Gisich, as many other new gallery owners, had no prior art experience. She now represents some of Russia's leading contemporary artists, such as Oleg Bogomolov and Guryanov, both of whose works sell for as much as $20,000. Both Gisich and Kudratsyeva began with funding from the husbands.

    ``Many art galleries in the world are the hobby of the rich, so thank God that there are some wealthy Russian women who want to spend money on art and not on opening a cafe or beauty salon,'' said Teresa Mavrica, director of Stella Art, established 18 months ago. ``But having money is not enough; you have to be able to put together a professional team.''

    Stella Art, named after its Russian owner Stella Kay, was the first Moscow gallery to bring western artists to Moscow. Six months ago, it opened another location solely devoted to contemporary Russian artists.

    ``When we started this we had no expectations, but now we see there's great potential here,'' said Mavrica. ``Russians tend to move slowly, but once they catch on you can't stop them.''