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Russian Relics For Sale in London

A recently found pillowcase that held Faberge cigarette cases and cufflinks hidden 90 years ago by Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna, shown with her family. Kirsty Wigglesworth

LONDON  — Auction houses are banking on a recovery at next week’s series of big Russian art sales in London, at which they expect to show that the market dominated by new money is through the worst of the recession.

With most at stake are Sotheby’s and Russian specialist MacDougall’s, who together offer works worth between £27 million and £39 million ($45 million and $64 million). Christie’s, the world’s largest auction house, has presale estimates of £6.5 million to £9.3 million.

The figures are sharply down from a year ago, reflecting how financial turmoil and falling stock and property values have hit super-wealthy collectors from Russia and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union and have deterred owners from selling their best pieces.

Sotheby’s, for example, expected its 2008 winter sales to fetch between £29 million and £41 million. The actual result was £25 million, marking a significant drop in values that had soared during the previous five years or so.

This year, Sotheby’s estimates have halved to £15 million to £21 million, reflecting a more selective pool of buyers and limited supply, as sellers hold out for a return to the heady days of 2007 and early 2008.

“There are less lots on offer,” Jo Vickery, Sotheby’s senior director, told Reuters. “We’ve been much more selective in the current economic climate, looking particularly for works with a very good provenance.

“There is considerable demand out there, but, at the moment, supply is less.”

William MacDougall, director of MacDougall Arts Ltd., said he expected prices to continue to recover from recent falls.

“The general theme since April last year is that sellers are reluctant to sell at these levels, unlike, say, holders of equities who have been forced into doing so.

“But the results in October in New York were very good, and so we’re expecting a continued healthy market next week.”

He said more than 90 percent of buyers were born in the former Soviet Union, and, although London has become the global capital for Russian art, the majority of them were based elsewhere.

His company is selling art valued at £12.4 million to £17.6 million. MacDougall’s also boasts the most valuable single lot of “Russian Week” in London, with an oil painting of a nude female by Russian artist Zinaida Serebriakova expected to fetch £1.0 million to £1.5 million.

Close behind is Sotheby’s and another work by a leading 20th-century female artist, Alexandra Exter, whose brightly colored “Venice” is estimated at £0.9 million to £1.2 million.

The auction house is also offering a large collection of Faberge cigarette cases and cufflinks that had been hidden in a pair of pillowcases in a Swedish foreign office safe for more than 90 years until their recent discovery.

The objects belonged to Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna and her husband Grand Duke Vladimir, brother of Tsar Alexander III.

The sale is expected to raise about £1 million, and a handful of the bejeweled cigarette cases still contain matches and cigarettes from the period.

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