The new-found wealth of Russia's elite is having a major impact on the international market for the country's cultural riches. Sotheby's has been holding dedicated Russian art sales since 1985, but the market has been booming in recent times.
"The political and economic changes in Russia over the last five to 10 years are driving the market," explains Jo Vickery, head of the Sotheby's Russian department. "The new clients are primarily wealthy Russians from Moscow and to some extent the Ukraine - they are wealthy and after a steady climb in prices, the cost of art has taken off in the last three years."
Martyn Saunders-Rawlins, a Bonhams consultant, points out that Russian art has a long and proud history. "There's always been a huge interest in art - even in the Soviet era there were people collecting, albeit clandestinely," he says. "However, it's only recently that Russian collectors have been able to actively compete against each other in the international market." That's had a major impact, Saunders-Rawlins says. "A work by Boris Kustodiev sold at another auction house for around £20,000 20 years ago, and was sold again last year for £1.2m."
Collectors are becoming more sophisticated and are starting to look at other areas of Russian collectables. "As the market has developed and matured, it has become so enormous that we are now splitting it into separate sales," adds Vickery.
Sotheby's held its Russian works of art sale this week, and also ran a separate sale of Russian books, manuscripts, maps and photographs. It also plans an inaugural modern and contemporary russian art sale in October.
"We will see areas such as Russian contemporary grow in importance," says Vickery. "If you look at the Chinese and Indian markets, they now have a strong contemporary side and it's inevitable that interest in contemporary Russian work will grow. There are a number of fantastic contemporary artists out there and the artists and collectors just need to become more used to selling and buying at auction."
Soviet porcelain is another area where prices are moving fast, although it remains accessible to less monied collectors. "Much of it was propaganda tools and it's become collectable, especially the good quality and well designed items from top artists such as Malevich," says Vickery.
Saunders-Rawlins also thinks porcelain is on the up. "We're already seeing 1920s and 30s post-Revolution porcelain rising and I think we will see a greater interest in collecting porcelain from the 1940s to 50s," he says. "Lomonosov State Porcelain animals could well rise substantially. They were very cheap a few years ago, but prices are going up and those which can be attributed to known artists or painters will do particularly well." He also believes that the market in religious iconography will grow, and highlights interest in Soviet propaganda posters.
The top end of the art market is out of the reach of most people, though with prices having risen so high, it's arguably not a great time to be getting in. However, areas such as porcelain, contemporary art, photographs and even books represent more affordable possibilities for would-be collectors.
"I feel optimistic about the market in general," says Vickery. "Russia is a nation of collectors - they value their art and there will always be collectors as long as the economic and political situation is stable."
Vickery also points to the growing Russian interest in other areas of world art. "There's a huge cachet to owning a painting in your own home that previously could only be viewed in a museum," she says.
* Sotheby's: 020-7293 5000
* Bonhams: 020-7468 8334