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Russian contemporary art market takes off

The appetite for Russian contemporary art is growing as an expanding class of wealthy Russians move from classic to more modern works, gallery owners at a major Madrid art fair said.

But while the majority of the art is being bought by Russians, interest from abroad is also rising as Russian artists become better known in the West, they added.

"There are very few people in Russia who have knowledge of contemporary art, still interest is growing and that could lead to more sales," said Daria Pyrkina, a professor at Moscow State University who selected the eight galleries taking part in "Focus Russia" at the ARCO contemporary art fair.

A series of 11 large black and white photos of dead monkeys with a price tag of 44,000 euros (59,500 dollars) and a large oil painting on cow skin of a young blonde woman with a long moustache costing 10,000 euros are among the Russian pieces up for sale at the five-day fair which wraps up Sunday.

Over 90 percent of buyers of Russian contemporary art are Russian speakers from the former Soviet Union, said William MacDougall, the co-director of the specialist Russian auction house MacDougall's.

"The Russian contemporary art market has been slower to recover since the global financial crisis than classical Russian art. But with international contemporary strong again, we expect Russian contemporary to follow," he said.

"Much Russian contemporary art is still very affordable, compared with Russian classic art and international contemporary, so it is being bought by the growing middle class as well as by the wealthy."

The London auction house sold 1.4 million pounds (1.6 million euros, 2.2 million dollars) in Russian contemporary art last year, compared to 1.5 million pounds in 2009.

Buyers outside of Russia have shown interest in works by Russian artists but they often balk at paying the same prices for their pieces as they would for items made by Western European artists, said Anna Luneva, the curator at Moscow's M&J Guelman Gallery which is selling the oil on cow skin painting.

"This is the main difficulty. Russian artists are very good, we often have to educate buyers on this point," she said.

Over the past decade several world-class galleries focused on contemporary art, such as RuArts, Stella Art and Marina Gisich, have opened in Moscow and St. Petersburg, which have helped boost the popularity of modern art.

In many cases the gallery owners are the wives or girlfriends of Russian tycoons and their involvement provides the contemporary art market with a mix of philanthropy, patronage and celebrity that makes it fashionable.

"I think this is really raising awareness in Russia of Russian contemporary art and fueling respect and curiosity for their own contemporary artists," said Sotheby's Russian art specialist Joanna Vickery.

The largest gallery, the Garage Centre for Contemporary Culture which opened in 2008 at a reconverted Soviet bus depot in Moscow, is owned by Russian heiress Dasha Zhukova, the girlfriend of Chelsea football club owner Roman Abramovich.

Its inauguration in 2008 featured a performance by British singer Amy Winehouse and it drew European aristocrats and powerful art dealers from New York and London.

"The scene is not big like in New York or London but there is a new generation of artists doing interesting works," said Evgeny Mitta, the director of Moscow gallery Peperworks.