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Kandinsky, Malevich, Chagall: 10 most expensive Russian artists

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A record sale of the painting «Suprematist composition» (1916) by the legendary Kazimir Malevich at the Christie’s in May 2018 got us to thinking about bringing together the price achievements of Russian artists sold at auctions. What are the maximum amounts paid in different years for the works of Marc Chagall, Wassily Kandinsky, Mark Rothko?

1. Mark Rothko

Emotions ran high at the Christie’s auction. In addition to the direct struggle for the Suprematist composition, art critics and gallery owners waited for Kandinsky’s work to beat the record price of Russian artists sales established by Mark Rothko in 2014. Though, in vain, as the record remained the same.
The first most expensive art piece of Russian painters ever sold is entitled No. 6 and it belongs to Color Field painter Mark Rothko. Entitled No. 6 (Violet, Green and Red), it consists of large expanses of colour delineated by uneven, hazy shades, typical of the artist’s other works from this period. It was also the topic of one of the most famous art feuds between Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev and Swiss dealer Yves Bouvier over the correct price of the work — Bouvier was allegedly secretly withholding part of the sale price in order to make some money on the transaction. Still, what Mr. Rubolovlev paid for No. 6 was a record for the American painter — $186 million in a private sale in 2014.
On the second place is also Mark Rothko, this time with his «Orange, Red, Yellow» painting. Forty-two years after his death, Marc Rothko sets records at Christie’s, which, again, has its own reasons to walk down the pages of history. A brilliant camaraderie of three colors — Rothko’s timeless creation from 1961, was sold for $87 million at Christie’s in 2012. The seller was the estate of David Pincus.

Since 2005, Rothko’s paintings have been a great success at auctions around the world. This surpassed the 2007 record price for a Rothko work of $72.8 million set when David Rockefeller sold White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose). The hammer price was $77.5 million, and the price was $86.8 million including buyer’s premium. It established a new record for post-war/contemporary art at a public auction, when ignoring inflation, for the first time.
Rothko Mark. Orange, red, yellow
Orange, red, yellow
1961, 236.2×206.4 cm

2. Kazimir Malevich

On 15 May, the top lot of the evening «Suprematist Composition» by Kazimir Malevich, an amalgam of hard-edged geometric shapes painted in 1916, was sold for $85.8 million, a record for the Russian avant-garde artist.

The Malevich work became a repeat auction champion. In 2008, the canvas fetched $60 million at Sotheby’s, an artist’s record until it was resold at Christie’s.
In 1927, the Soviet avant-garde artist Kazimir Malevich intended to organize his exhibition abroad where he brought nearly one hundred of his works, which later remained with the architect Hugo Hering in Berlin. The latter preserved them through the era of Nazism, selling them in the 1950s, after the death of Kazimir Malevich. Not long ago, nearly 40 of Malevich' inheritors quite proved to the court that Hugo Hering did not own the paintings, so he had no right to trade in them. Therefore one of the buyers — the Stedelek state museum in Holland — was compelled to give away the masterpiece, which was immediately put up for auction by Malevich’s heirs.


Appearing at auctions, the works of Kazimir Malevich always create agiotage. So it was in 2015, when the unknown buyer purchased «Mystical Suprematism» (1922) at Sotheby’s New York. The painting, which belonged to the heirs of the artist, fetched USD37.7 million.

On June 24 in the same 2015, the previous maximum was broken, which was paid for by Malevich at open tenders. For the painting «Suprematism. 18th design «(1915), also sold by the heirs of Malevich, at Sotheby’s London, an unknown buyer paid USD33.8 million.
Kazimir Malevich. Mystic Suprematism
Kazimir Malevich. Suprematism 18th construction
  • Kazimir Malevich. Mystic Suprematism, 1922
  • Kazimir Malevich. Suprematism 18th construction, 1915

3. Wassily Kandinsky

On June 21, 2017 the auction record for Wassily Kandinsky was broken twice in 20 minutes. First to go under the hammer was Murnau — Landschaft mit grünem Haus dated 1909, which sold for $26.4 million. One of the finest early works by Kandinsky left in private hands, this painting made its auction debut having remained in the private collection of the same family since the 1920s. A major Expressionist painting of blazing colour, it captures the moment of transition in the artist’s career when he was on the cusp of moving from figuration to abstraction.
That record was broken minutes later by Kandinsky’s powerful abstract masterpiece Bild mit weissen Linien from 1913, which was driven by a prolonged bidding battle to $41.6 million. A profoundly important work that hails from a landmark moment that fundamentally changed the way art was conceived and understood, it reveals the artist’s discovery that colour could become the principal subject of a painting. Virtually all of the significant paintings of 1913 are in major museum collections, and this work appeared on the open market for the first time. Together with 4 Figuren auf 3 Quadraten from 1943, a late work illustrating Kandinsky’s interest in tribal iconography and geometry, the total achieved for Kandinsky that night was $68.6 million.
Sales record of Kandinsky’s paintings kept from 2012, when his painting «Sketch for Improvisation No. 8» was sold at Christie’s auction in New York for $ 23 million.
Wassily Kandinsky. Fugue

Wassily Kandinsky «Fuga (Fugue», 1914 — $22.9 million). This painting set a price record back in 1990 when nobody dared to buy it. The good part about that is that now anyone can admire it at the private Foundation Beyeler in Switzerland.

Left: Wassily Kandinsky «Fugue», 1914.

4. Marc Chagall

«Les Amoureux» by Marc Chagall was the top lot at November sales Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern art auction in New York.

The painting was sold to a Russian buyer for $25 million, or $28.4 million with the auction house commission, beating out an Asian collector on the phone with Patti Wong, chair of Sotheby’s Asia. The result is nearly double the artist’s previous auction record of $14.8 million (with fees) and well above the work’s $12 million to $18 million pre-sale estimate.

Considered one of the greatest works by the Jewish painter Marc Chagall to come onto the open market, «Les Amoureux» had previously remained in the same family for nearly 90 years since the owner’s family bought it from the artist’s Paris gallery in 1928 — the same year it was painted.
Chagall’s previous auction record was set in 1990, when Sotheby’s sold Anniversaire (1923) in New York for $14.9m. That benchmark was achieved when frothy Japanese buying and demand helped push art prices to ultimately unsustainable levels. (That buying contingent immediately vanished when the art market crashed.)

The painting by the Vitebsk dreamer belonged to the glorified Guggenheim Museum and turned to be on the art market through folly. Once the museum director Thomas Krents put up Kandinsky’s Fugue, this canvass by Marc Chagall and Modigliani’s work for an auction. The profit was used by the museum to purchase a collection of 200 works by American conceptual artists. The director was naturally reproved; however, what is done cannot be undone.
Marc Chagall. L'Anniversaire
L'Anniversaire
1915, 80.8×100.3 cm

5. Chaim Soutine

In May 2015, Le Bœuf, circa 1923, oil on canvas, achieved a record price for the artist of $28,165,000 at the Christie’s curated auction Looking forward to the past.
Between 1923 and 1925, Soutine painted an extraordinary sequence of nine canvases that take as their starting point the newly slaughtered carcass of a steer, the vermillion-colored flesh and golden suet flayed and opened up for the artist’s penetrating inspection. Only three of these prized paintings remain today in private hands, of which the present is the largest, most powerfully visceral, and most nearly abstract in the vigorous streaks and swirls of viscous, jewel-like pigment that Soutine used to render the bloody meat.

Inspired by classic painting in the European tradition, the artist developed an individual style more concerned with shape, color, and texture over representation, which served as a bridge between more traditional approaches and the developing form of Abstract Expressionism×You can hardly tell the exact day or year of the birth of Expressionism, which is usual for all powerful art movements. You cannot draw a border on the map and indicate the territory where Expressionism took its start and got stronger. Overall, it’s all roughly known. Except for one rock-solid spatiotemporal benchmark: Northern Europe on the eve of the First World War. Expressionism is an avant-garde art movement, a new tragic worldview, and a whole set of significant motifs, symbols, and myths. Moreover, it is a revolutionary reaction both to the shabby, lifeless traditional academic art, and the light, idyllic southern impressionistic “appearance” of the world. read more .

6. Alexej von Jawlensky

«Schokko mit Tellerhut» is one of the most powerful and stylised of all Jawlensky’s female portraits of 1910. Before posing in Jawlensky’s cold studio, she liked to drink a cup of hot chocolate and her requests for 'a cup of Schokko' led to the nickname given to her by the Jawlensky.

In 2008 at Sotheby’s someone from Russia paid $18.6 million for Jawlensky’s «Schokko With Wide-Brimmed Hat," a colorful portrait of a young German village girl. The price was more than double the previous auction record for the artist, set at Sotheby’s in New York in 2003. The experts called this deal «investor success».

7. Valentin Serov

The most exquisite Serov ever offered at Christie’s, the sale of Portrait of Maria Zetlin (1882−1976) to benefit the museums of Ramat Gan is truly a monumental event. Painted in 1910, in the tense period between the 1905 revolution and its more notorious 1917 sister, Serov's portraits of this time poignantly capture moments from a society dancing into shadow, a Russia about to disappear forever.

The painting was sold at Christie’s on November 24, 2014. The amount earned for the painting — just over $ 14.5 million — was a record of specialized «Russian bidding», which Christie’s regularly holds in London.

8. Nicholas Roerich

Nicholas Roerich. Madonna Laboris (Proceedings Of The Mother Of God)

Madonna Laboris (1931) — £7.88 million (about $13.5 million) at Bonhams, 2013
It was one of the most unexpected records of last year: the painting was pre-estimated at around £ 800 thousand — 1.2 million, and was sold 7 times more expensive. The canvas depicts Virgin Mary holding her scarf down from the Paradise wall and secretly takes in those human souls that were debarred by Peter the Apostle, the Paradise gatekeeper. For a long time this painting was stored in one American family, which had no idea of what an outstanding figure Nicholas Roerich was.

Left: Nicholas Roerich. Madonna Laboris (Proceedings Of The Mother Of God), 1931.


9. Nikolai Fechin

Nikolai Fechin, Ilya Repin’s student who immigrated to the USA in 1923, had won certain art reputation in his homeland; however, it was not so big as to be remembered in the Soviet years. Fortunately, a large-scale exhibition held in the Tretyakov Gallery in 2012 helped his compatriots to remember him. The Little Cowboy was painted in the American period of the artist’s career: he stayed in the State of New Mexico for a long time and portrayed lots of locals, including both cowboys, and Native Americans.

«The Little Cowboy», 1940, depicts a barefoot little boy in denim overalls, a red bandanna and a floppy hat, gripping a pair of reins. Firstly the painting was sold for $632,500 in May, 2010 in New York and then was resold for $10.9million (£6.96million)—more than seventeen times higher — at auction Macdougall’s in London on December 2, 2010. It was the most expensive lot of Russian art ever sold by this auction house. In addition to this, the work was also the top lot of the whole Russian week of that year in London. With the upper limit of the estimate of 700 thousand pounds, «Little Cowboy» caused a huge stir and was bought by a collector from Russia.

10. Natalia Goncharova

The top ten list of the most expensive Russian artists features the only female artist Natalia Goncharova with her painting «Spanish Woman», 1916. Natalia Goncharova is one of the most sought-after painters on the art market. Her works could have made an entire list of most expensive auction sales. Thus, her painting Flowers was sold for £ 5.5 million ($10.8 million) at the Christie’s in 2008 — one of the highest prices ever paid for a female artist. The painting «Spanish flu» (1916) was sold for $ 10.7 million at Christie’s in 2010. This picture was painted during the First World War. At that time the artist moved from Russia to Paris, where she made decorations for Diaghilev’s «Russian Ballet». In the picture we can see the powerful energy of Spanish dance.

«Picking Apples» (1909) was sold for $ 9.8 at Christie’s in 2006. This picture set a record for Russian painting in 2006 at the Christie’s auction, «The Impressionists and the masters of the XX century». We don’t know who bought the painting, the buyer wished to remain anonymous.
When Natalia painted «Picking Apples», she was fond of impressionism, post-impressionism×"Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?" Gauguin asked when naming his famous painting. Well, the answers were given by the world renowned artists, who once have determined the style. read more , cubism and futurism. Goncharova also was inspired by Russian icon painting. As a result, she created a series of pictures «Picking Fruit» in a very original manner.


Natalia Goncharova. Flowers
Flowers
1912, 72.7×93 cm
Natalia Goncharova. Spanish
Natalia Goncharova
1916
Natalia Goncharova. Apple picking
Natalia Goncharova
1909
Natalia Goncharova. Autumn forest
Natalia Goncharova
1950
Based on materials from the official sites: sothebys.com, christies.com, macdougallauction.com and others.

Artists mentioned in the article
Marc Chagall
Biography • Artworks
Wassily Kandinsky
Biography • Artworks
Rothko Mark
Biography • Artworks
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