Our specialist reflects on nights in Red Square, seeking out relatives of obscure collectors — and discovering a masterpiece covered in years of cooking oil
I love to walk around Red Square after dinner to soak up the atmosphere. Before the pandemic, I would travel to Moscow every six weeks to meet clients and perform valuations. I often stay at Hotel National, more of an institution than a hotel, which I love because they’ve come to know me. It’s nice seeing a familiar face abroad.
The shift towards online communications has made it harder to read human emotions and has tested client relationships. But it has also been an opportunity to build trust. People are increasingly ready to spend money on something they’ve only seen online. This would have happened eventually, but the pandemic has accelerated the transition.
My passion for craftsmanship comes from my parents. I was born in north London. My father was a carpenter and my mother was a seamstress. They taught me to examine the construction as well as appreciate the form. They also loved Antiques Roadshow. [The TV show was inspired by a documentary about Christie’s specialists.] My mum set the programme’s theme music as my ringtone when I started working for Christie’s.
It helps to be in the right place at the right time. I studied English and Russian at Oxford. My first job was working as a personal assistant in London’s financial district, but I was bored stiff. In 2004 I interned in the Drawings and Watercolours department, and a few months later a huge consignment of Russian paintings came in and they needed an extra pair of hands to help with the sale. It was serendipitous timing.
The sale saw the £1 million mark broken by a Russian painting for the first time. It was Ivan Aivazovsky’s wintery picture of St. Isaac’s Cathedral, which was constructed in St. Petersburg by 7,000 men and topped with a dome covered in 100kg of gold.
The worldwide popularity of Russian paintings has increased hugely over the past two decades. In 2004 there was an eye-opening exhibition, Russian Landscape in the Age of Tolstoy, at the National Gallery in London. Then, in 2005, the Musée d’Orsay opened Russian Art in the Second Half of the 19th Century, which was swiftly followed by the Guggenheim’s RUSSIA! show in 2006. Since then, there seem to be significant exhibitions every other year, revealing new facets of Russian art to an international audience.
The Russian Art auction category is very broad-ranging. We handle more than 300 years of art history, and everything from silver and ceramics to contemporary art. I might be researching a major avant-garde Goncharova in the morning and valuing a historic portrait by Borovikovsky in the afternoon. The variety is what keeps the category fresh and exciting.
We have a lot of ‘discovery moments’, because often people in Europe or America have inherited things they’re not familiar with. Sometimes I track down the relatives of collectors mentioned in newspaper articles or old exhibition catalogues, to see if they’ve inherited anything by artists such as Boris Grigoriev
or Konstantin Somov, both of whom are hugely collectable now. The amateur detective work involved is probably the part of the job that I enjoy the most.
When you get a hit, you can’t help becoming emotionally invested in the owner’s story. In 2008 I received an envelope containing a blurry photograph in which I could just make out a painting of a peasant woman.
I took a train heading south out of London, and was welcomed at a little cottage with a cup of tea and a packet of chocolate biscuits. Then the owner of the house took me into her kitchen and unveiled a large portrait by Arkhipov, which was covered in years of cooking oil. After almost falling through the floor when I revealed its value, she told me she had another upstairs.
Together, the pictures sold for almost £800,000. The money changed her life. I still have her thank-you card. Those are the sorts of valuations that you never forget.
I have had phone bidders in auctions lose signal because they’re in the bathroom or on a jet.
Phone-bidding is exhilarating and nerve-racking at the same time. From the outside, auctions are perfectly executed, but you have to be ready for the unexpected. When we sold Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin’s Still Life with Lilac in 2019 we had no idea it would go for £9.2 million and set a new world record for a Russian work of art. Moments like that give you a real high.
The so-called Mega-Collectors want the most iconic works across all genres. The driving force behind our market is Russian-speaking clients, but at the very top end it’s more international. This is particularly true of Fabergé, and artists such as Kandinsky and Malevich.
I collect vintage fashion and antique textiles from places I’ve been to such as Armenia, Georgia and Uzbekistan. I’m a self-confessed maximalist; my partner is a minimalist who favours mid-century modern. I think the key to harmony is being able to display things that speak to or ricochet off one another.
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If I get the opportunity, what I really love to do in Russia is forage for wild mushrooms. It’s almost a religion there. If you’re someone who knows where the mushrooms are, you’re highly respected. It’s like gathering top lots for auction; it requires preparation, knowledge and experience to avoid toadstools and bag a prize porcini.