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Foreign Collectors Spend More Than $3 Million to Acquire Soviet Art

July 7, 1988

MOSCOW (AP) _ Foreigners spent more than $3 1/2 million at the Soviet Union’s first international art auction Thursday, including a British collector who paid more than a half-million dollars for one Russian avant-garde picture.

About 2,000 people crowded into a hall at the International Trade Center on the banks of the Moscow River for the auction organized by Sotheby’s of London, a curiosity-inspiring event in a country where prices are customarily regulated by bureaucrats.

In two hectic hours, 120 artworks were put up for bids, including photographs, paintings, a gouache and poster by Alexander Rodchenko, a member of the Productivist Group of artists that in the early days of Soviet power sought the incorporation of art into everyday life.

Art that deviated from the principles of Socialist Realism once met with the Kremlin’s disdain. Two such artists represented at the auction, Vladimir Nemukhin and Bela Levikova, were among a group of painters who organized an outdoor exhibition in a Moscow park in 1974 that was broken up by KGB agents driving bulldozers and dump trucks.

Bids at the auction were taken from the 1,000 people in the audience, as well as by telephone and through written offers submitted in advance.

Because payment in British pounds was required, Soviets in theory were excluded from taking part in the auction, since it is illegal for them to hold foreign currency.

But they made their feelings known, applauding when a contemporary work fetched more than $400,000, and when paintings by Ilya Glazunov, a controversial artist with high-level official support, failed to sell for their minimum estimated value.

The total amount bid was 2.1 million pounds ($3.6 million) - a figure auctioneer Simon de Pury, Sotheby’s director for Europe, said ″exceeded our wildest expectations.″ The chairman of Sotheby’s of London, Lord Gowrie, said six of the works offered were not sold because the price offered was too low.

David Juda, of the Annely Juda fine arts gallery in London, won a fierce bidding war with a $567,000 offer for Rodchenko’s ″Line,″ a 1920 oil painting that depicts a white line zigzagging across a matte black canvas.

″It’s a very important painting, one of the most important Rodchenko did,″ Juda said. ″It has very much to do with the minimalism that he helped create.″

Juda, whose gallery specializes in modern Russian art, flew to Moscow especially to bid on the painting by Rodchenko, who died in 1956. ″That was my very last bid,″ Juda said. ″I don’t think I paid too much -- but maybe I did.″

In all, 18 works by artists from before World War II were auctioned off.

The bulk of the works on sale was by contemporary artists, ranging from the two participants in the abortive ″bulldozer exhibition″ to Glazunov, whose tableaux from Russian history have made him a darling of Russian nationalists and a bete noire of progressive intellectuals.

One 1986 work, ″Fundamental Lexicon″ by Moscow-born Grisha Bruskin, sold for $416,000, a figure de Pury said was a record for a modern Soviet artist, and a sum that sparked proud applause among Soviets in the audience.

Composed of 32 separate canvases, the work shows little figures holding symbols from Soviet life, including a tractor, a portrait of Lenin and the flag of the Soviet air force. De Pury called it ″a fundamental work in Soviet contemporary art.″

Gowrie said the British pop singer Elton John had bid $75,000 for a blue- hued landscape by modern Soviet painter Svetlana Kopystianskaya, and the same sum for a portrait by her husband, Igor Kopystiansky.

Glazunov’s 1974 ″Ivan the Terrible,″ showing the brooding czar watching a beheading, was sold for $48,000, or $3,400 under the minimum estimate set by Sotheby’s appraisers. Many Soviets in the audience clapped and laughed.

Nikolai Filatov, a Ukrainian-born artist who had two works sold, said the auction was an important event because it had allowed Soviet painters to compete in the world art market. ″Maybe money is a bad standard for merit, but it’s a worldwide standard,″ he said.

Juda, a veteran of art auctions, said he though Western interest in Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev reforms had caused a new curiosity in Russian art, but that the price level at the auction had been ″extremely high.″

The artists will get 60 percent of the sale price, including 10 percent in British pounds, with the remainder in rubles. The Soviet Ministry of Culture receives a 30-percent share of the sales price, and Sotheby’s gets the remaining 10 percent, of which Gowrie said 2 percent would be turned over to the Soviet Cultural Fund.

In addition to its 8-percent commission from the seller, Sotheby’s charges the purchaser 10 percent of the sale price as a buyer’s fee.

Pavel Khoroshilov, a Ministry of Culture official who helped organize the auction, said the pounds would help the ministry buy artworks in the West, where the ruble is not valid as a means of payment.

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