Russians ready to take auction houses by storm

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At Christie's tomorrow, two sales are expected to make around £13m. Works will include a £600,000 pencil-and-watercolour sketch of a costume design for the dancer Vaslav Nijinsky for the ballet of L'Apres-Midi d'un Faune.

On Thursday, Sotheby's will present a further 400 lots, including the largest collection of works of important Russian artists it has sold in London to date. Artists will include Ilya Ivanovich Mashkov and Petr Petrovich Konchalovsky.

Interest is being fuelled by a burgeoning Russian elite and the almost limitless funds of businessmen, such as the Chelsea football club owner Roman Abram-ovich, who have based themselves in London.

But though Russians have spent large sums buying back their heritage in recent years, they are not alone in their enthusiasm. Around a third of the buyers for these works are not Russian, insiders say.

Alexis Tiesenhausen, who heads Christie's Russian department, said: "Yes, the Russians play a role and, yes, money plays a role. In the past, they weren't able to purchase in the way they can now. But we have a new breed of buyers who are more interested in this art and more buyers than we used to have before. The demand is pretty strong."

The headline work at Christie's is A Fishing Boat with a Russian Merchant Brig at Anchor by Aivazovsky. It is estimated to make up to £1.2m, which would make it a world record for a 19th century Russian painting.

In his lifetime - 1817-1900 - the artist was known in Russia and Europe for his atmospheric seascapes. This work has not been seen at auction before.

Another highlight is a group of 11 works by Yakun-chikova, who died in 1902 from tuberculosis aged only 32. She was described as "the dear poet of Russian forests" by the choreographer Sergei Diaghilev.

Already highly respected in academic circles, this is the first time a collection of her paintings has appeared at auction where individual paintings of hers are being valued at up to £200,000.

At Sotheby's on Thursday, Aivazovsky will be attracting the attention, with a canvas of Mount Ararat which was recently rediscovered in a private Greek collection. The picture of the mountain, now in eastern Turkey, was produced a year after the artist made a mid-life odyssey to Armenia in 1868. It is thought likely to fetch up to £650,000.

Other works not previously seen at auction include Still Life with Flowers by Mashkov, one of the founding members, with Konchalovsky, of the avant-garde movement Bubnovy Valet, or the Jack of Diamonds group. The still life could fetch up to £300,000.

Konchalovsky's Red Haired Nude at the Mirror has come directly from the artist's grandson and has not been sold at auction before. It is expected to make up to £280,000.

Interest in Russian art has risen because of the new Russian wealth, helping to fuel record prices such as the $9.6m (£5.6m) achieved for a Fabergé egg in April 2002. The highest price for a 19th century Russian painting was set at Christie's last year for Aivazovsky's St Isaac's on a Frosty Day, which made £1.125m.

The clamour is also a result of small numbers of works on the market. "We never had a great deal of Russian art," Mr Tiesenhausen said. "People who left Russia in the 1920s were thinking more about taking suitcases than paintings."

It is not a new market. Christie's Russian department was founded in the late 1970s in Geneva and the first London sales followed a few years later. But annual sales are more recent.