Well-heeled Russians latest in art money-go-round

KIWI BUYER: Dunbar Sloane’s head of art, Alice Masters, with if Portrait of Hoda Shaarawinf by Feodor Zakharov.
KIWI BUYER: Dunbar Sloane’s head of art, Alice Masters, with if Portrait of Hoda Shaarawinf by Feodor Zakharov.

The Russians are coming - but they can be beaten.

That was shown conclusively last Thursday, when a solitary Wellington woman, bidding staunchly from the front row of an art auction in the city, took on the financial might of half a dozen London buyers of Russian art to win a magnificent 1923 Russian watercolour of Egyptian nationalist, philanthropist and feminist icon Hoda Shaarawi.

This, and some other recent high prices fetched at New Zealand auctions, is the latest twist in what is becoming an increasingly fickle market for fine art and collectables, including classic vehicles.

Following global trends, and shrinking disposable incomes, many locally based collectors are being forced to sit on their hands.

Many items sell well below what they would have fetched even five years ago. Perversely there are still wealthy people - here and overseas - who pay some surprisingly high prices for things they want.

The Egyptian portrait was sold on behalf of Hoda Shaarawi's Wellington granddaughter.

In 1923, her grandmother founded the Egyptian Feminist Union, after attending a feminist conference in Rome. On returning home she shattered convention by removing her veil at a time when it was dictated that all women should cover their heads and faces in public. She also published a magazine, l'Egyptienne, and a book, The Harem Years.

The painting, by Feodor Zakharov, in a splendid Oriental frame, had been expected to fetch between $8000 and $14,000. But with the firm's principal, Dunbar Sloane Senior (having difficulties with his unaccustomed role of dealing with a phone bidder), and five other staff handling international callers, bidding rapidly rose to $58,000, or $68,000 including buyer's costs. The buyer wishes to remain anonymous.

The Russians would not be beaten when a pair of highly detailed oils by Viatcheslav Kalinin came up. He was a leader of the Soviet non-conformist school, set up in 1961 in reaction to the then prevailing socialist realism of the Soviet Union. After hectic phone bidding again, the pair fetched $25,000 ($29,312 with fees). Because of the oils' size, the new owner will face substantial insurance, freight and related costs to get them home. The Auckland vendor bought them in 1988 in a New York gallery.

Well-heeled Russians are showing increasing interest in local auctions especially for items from their rich heritage, such as the gold Faberge box, encrusted with precious stones, that recently fetched $87,500 (including buyer's costs) at a Webb's auction in Auckland. It was originally sold at Faberge's London shop in 1910 to a Russian prince for £35.

A dozen bidders, mainly from London and New York, plus four locals competed for it.

To someone like me, who has been following auctions for years (I blame my mother, who took me to them as a child), the Russians are merely the latest well-heeled group to appear.

You don't have to follow world economic events to work out which nationality is in the money at any particular time. A group of half a dozen Auckland-based Chinese buyers are ensuring exceptionally high prices for gold, jade and ivory items, many of which are exported to China and Hong Kong. Anthony Gallagher of Dunbar Sloane says the good-humoured group come to Wellington for all major sales.

“They are extending their range of interest, sometimes even buying fine English-made china and silver,” he said.

Before the Asians and Russians, when the Celtic economic tiger was roaring up to 2008, Irish bidders were on the end of the phone paying top prices for Irish silver, art and furniture.

Changing fashions have led to prices slipping for items that once would have attracted British and Australian interest. In London, South African, Middle Eastern and Iranian millionaires dominate art auctions, buying mainly historic European paintings of their countries.

Thanks to the internet - and the glossy catalogues now issued by leading New Zealand auction houses - it is now getting increasingly difficult for local collectors to grab a bargain, though the occasional one will still slip through at weekly chattel and some country auctions, and possibly even on Trade Me.

The gold box was spotted at the last moment by a Webb's staff member: it had been among items in a box lot at its weekly chattel auction. The beneficiaries of that estate must have been shocked by their surprise good fortune, as they had no idea that it was of any value.

Is art a good investment? Well, yes, and no. Following recent trends - and changing fashions - many items are today worth far less than they used to be, including Victorian furniture, New Zealand landscape painting and many modern painters.

That said, work by a select group of New Zealand painters continues to appreciate rapidly, including Peter Siddell, Bill Hammond and Tony Fomison.

Original owners should be well in the money. But buyers are choosey and will pay high prices only for what are considered the best examples, as many artists produced large quantities of work over many years.

Charles Goldie is one of the few New Zealand artists whose works have stood the test of time. At Webb's last month, a determined buyer paid a total $337,421 for a painting of Mihipeka Wairama, a survivor of the Tarawera eruption. She is portrayed having a smoke: Goldie called it "No Koora te Cigaretti".