The Oligarts: How Russia's very rich are buying up the World's very best art

Russia's super rich are spending fortunes buying up some of the world's greatest works of art – just as Catherine the Great did in her imperialist day, says Marcel Theroux

In an art storage depot in south London, James Butterwick, an old Etonian art dealer in motorcycle leathers, is showing me the first piece of Russian art he ever bought. It is a pencil drawing by Léon Bakst, a painter and graphic artist who designed for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes.

James acquired the taste for Russian art while studying in the Soviet Union and bought the picture in 1987, when Russian art was going for a song. James was able to snap up pictures by important Russian artists for relatively modest sums of money. Most of the pictures in the storage were painted between about 1910 and 1930, the period of the Russian avant-garde that includes Malevich, Kandinsky and Chagall.

It seems to be Russia's fate to be a latecomer to global trends and then make up for it its tardiness with sheer intensity. Russia left it until the 19th century to produce any writers of global stature, and then Pushkin, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Gogol, Dostoyevsky, and Turgenev all appeared. In politics, Russia had a frankly medieval set-up until 1861, with a tsar and legal serfdom; just over half a century later, it was leading the vanguard of world socialist revolution. The hordes of Russian shoppers on New Bond Street may have a different political ethos, but their single-minded pursuit of luxury has a similarly frenzied air of making up for lost time.

With Russian art, it's the same story. For centuries, Russia was epitomised by icons and onion domes, but by 1917, the country was a hothouse of artistic creativity. In painting, design and architecture, Russian artists were innovating, experimenting and open to new influences.

James tears the bubble wrap off a picture and stands it against the wall for me to admire. It's an oil painting by Natalia Goncharova. Goncharova and her husband Mikhail Larionov were part of this golden generation of Russian artists who came of age around the time of the Russian Revolution.

This summer, at Christie's Impressionist sale in London, a painting by Goncharova sold for $10.8m and became the most expensive work by a female artist sold at auction; not bad for a woman whose paintings failed to reach modest reserves as recently as 20 years ago.

When Stalin got his grip on the Soviet Union in the 1930s, the artistic flowering ended. In 1932 Socialist Realism was declared to be the only legitimate form of painting. Any artist who hoped to make a living painted happy peasants, blast furnaces, and pictures of Lenin. The art of the Russian avant-garde was relegated to store rooms. Outside Russia, a few émigrés and connoisseurs collected it. Inside Russia, there was a small circle of enthusiasts who exchanged pictures or bought them for tiny sums.

I meet one of these enthusiasts in his house in west London. Alexander Shlepyanov amassed a collection of avant-garde art in the Soviet Union, buying from other collectors inside the country, and from the families of the artists themselves. He tells me he felt that he needed to save the paintings from the communists. "It was a kind of Atlantis," he says. For collectors like him, the avant-garde was the evidence of a flourishing civilisation that had been wiped out by the commissars.

But when I ask him if he still collects, Mr. Shlepyanov looks a little sad. He says collectors like him have been priced out of the market.

James Butterwick tells me that in the past three years the prices of Russian art have gone up by as much as 400 per cent. It's not hard to figure out the reason. A new generation of super-rich collectors started buying up the works of the Russian avant-garde with the same devotion that the earlier generation painted them.

Rumour has it that Roman Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea Football Club, was the buyer of the Goncharova at Christie's. Mr Abramovich, who before 2008 had shown no interest in painting or sculpture, this summer acquired a Bacon triptych, a Lucian Freud, and a Giacometti. He also underwrote his girlfriend Darya Zhukhova's foray into the art world. Ms Zhukhova opened a modern art gallery in Moscow two weeks ago.

Of course, the former Soviet Union's new rich don't simply collect the Russian avant-garde. They buy Impressionist paintings, icons and 19th-century Russian painters such as Ivan Aivazovsky. At Sotheby's Russian Evening Sale in June, I watched as a tiny Aivazovsky snowscape sold for five times its estimate. As surprising as the sums was the manner of the bidding. As the auctioneer led the bids up towards £100,000, a gruff accented voice announced: "Two hundred thousand!"

Aivazovsky's detractors say his works are chocolate-boxy and kitsch, that his land and seascapes are an easy entry point into Russian art for new collectors with more money than taste. At the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, one of its curators, Alexis Leporc, tells me that some of the new money is indeed spent indiscriminately, buying up job lots of art. But there's precedent for it. Catherine the Great put together the massive collection that's at the heart of the Hermitage in much the same way, as part of a scheme to make Russia an imperial power.

What's perhaps strangest of all is the way the once unfavoured artists have attracted the attentions of Russia's top brass. The billionaire part-owner of Arsenal, Alisher Usmanov, Hoovered up the collection of the late Mstislav Rostropovich, the cellist and Soviet dissident. Mr Usmanov bought the entire collection of 450 paintings and works of art and returned them to Russia where they fill room after room in St Petersbur's Konstantinovsky Palace, an official residence of the Russian President. It's an imperial display that Catherine the Great would understand.

'Oligart: The Great Russian Art Boom' is on Channel 4 tomorrow at 6.30pm

Five oligarchs who are redrawing the art world

Roman Abramovich: Billionaire owner of Chelsea Football Club, he emerged this year as the buyer of at least $120m worth of paintings. Chelsea supporters might be forgiven for wishing he'd spent the money on a couple of specialist penalty-takers. His girlfriend, Darya Zhukhova, has just opened the Centre for Contemporary Art Moscow in a converted bus garage.

Alisher Usmanov: Uzbek-born Usmanov owns 20 per cent of Arsenal football club. Last year he paid upwards of £20m to repatriate Mstislav Rostropovich's collection of Russian art.

Viktor Pinchuk: The Ukrainian oligarch Pinchuk made his fortune in the steel industry and has invested heavily in contemporary art.

Viktor Vekselberg: The Ukrainian oil and metals magnate paid an estimated £50m in 2004 for the world's second largest collection of Fabergé eggs. He also funded the repatriation of some historic Russian bells to the Danilov Monastery in Moscow. He's embroiled in a battle with BP for control of a Russian oil venture.

Pyotr Aven: Urbane and fluent English speaking, banking billionaire Aven is considered to have one of the finest collections of Russian art that is held in private hands.

Catherine the Great: Arguably set the pattern for today's oligarchs. Not Russian at all but German, she married into the Russian royal family. As empress, she collected the art that forms the centrepiece of the Hermitage, intended to emphasise Russia's new Great Power status.



Dermot O'Leary attends the X Factor Wembley Arena auditions at Wembley on August 1, 2014 in London, England.


Arts and Entertainment
At this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas

Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss