Russia's wealthiest collectors flock to London for art sale of the century

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The Independent Online

The Park Lane hotels are booked, as are tables at the West End's most fashionable restaurants. Managers in Knightsbridge and Chelsea shops are brushing up their Russian and preparing for a small invasion of women in diamonds and furs.

But the main attractions for Muscovites when they descend on London in eight days' time will be the dignified auction rooms of Bond Street and St James's. At the end of this month, they will host one of the largest sales of Russian art yet seen in Western Europe, and certainly the biggest staged in London.

The auctions at Sotheby's and Christie's run for three consecutive days from 30 November, with 1,000 lots valued at £17m or more. The Moscow papers are coming, as are the television cameras, hoping to catch sight of Russia's new aristocracy, the super-rich bankers, politicians and entrepreneurs who can be found browsing the galleries and sale rooms of the international art world.

The big collectors include Elena Baturina, the wife of Yuri Luzhkov, Moscow's powerful mayor. President Vladimir Putin's men will be there, eyeing up a rare surviving portrait of Tsar Nicholas I for the Kremlin collection or the Hermitage in St Petersburg. The regulars will be there too, such as the London-based Prince Nikita Lobanov-Rostovsky, and the Russian publisher and gallery owner Vadim Solod, who describes the London sale as "a major cultural event".

The works on sale include pieces by Carl Fabergé, court jeweller to the Russian royal family, Marc Chagall and Ivan Aivazovsky's St Isaac's on a Frosty day, on offer at Christie's with a reserve of £1.5m. Sotheby's has the Farandole by Philip Maliavin, valued at £600,000, and a group of four postcards signed by Empress Alexandra Feodorovna and her children before the Imperial family was killed by the Bolsheviks in 1918.

The market in Russian art is booming as well-heeled Russians try to reclaim a portion of their heritage suppressed or destroyed in the Soviet era.

The end of Communism created the opportunity for several Russians - such as Roman Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea Football Club, and Boris Berezovsky - to build up multibillion-pound fortunes.

Thousands of artistic pieces vanished abroad in the aftermath of the 1917 revolution. But demand is far outstripping supply, and doubts are starting to emerge about the authenticity of many supposed masterpieces. In July, a shiver went through the Russian art world when Sotheby's withdrew a £600,000 painting attributed to Ivan Shishkin one day before sale because of doubts about its authenticity. It appears to have been a cleverly doctored landscape by a lesser known Dutch artist, Marinus Koekkoek, valued at roughly 1 per cent of what it had been expected to fetch as a Shishkin (although Sotheby's is standing by its attribution for the moment).

Now a new London auction house specialising in Russian art is urging its rivals to tighten their procedures to combat the growing industry in Russian fakes. Moscow-born Catherine MacDougall, the owner of the new saleroom, warns there is a dangerous lack of expertise in Europe, saying she had doubts about four out of five works offered to her recently. MacDougall's will be staging its own £1m sale beside the two London giants.

"Though the prices for Russian art have risen considerably, the commission from one impressionist canvas is still larger than the profit from an entire Russian sale," she said. "So there aren't enough experts being given the opportunity to deal with the complexity of the market."

Ms MacDougall, who made her money as an equities analyst in the City, says she has set up the auction house partly to "challenge the cosy world of Christie's and Sotheby's". The market, she says, has grown too quickly too soon. Ten years ago the total size of a typical Russian sale was about £500,000: now just one painting on sale at Christie's is worth three times that. "Neither Russian nor Western experts were prepared for that, and Russian departments of established auction houses are understaffed. Typically, only one person is responsible for up to a thousand lots spread over three centuries." This is not the only section of the art market beset by claims of fraud, but it is one where the necessary checks and balances seem to be notably missing. Authentication can even be a problem in Russia itself because the experts, concentrated in the state museums, are hard to reach.

The result is a growing mood of fear among collectors and dealers, few of whom want to jeopardise their relationship with the big auction houses by speaking publicly. But one leading Moscow collector, Georgy Hatsenkov, was prepared to be critical. "Sotheby's and Christie's are a huge, inflexible machine, a big conveyer-belt for Russian art," he said. Another anonymous collector said: "Whole files full of counterfeit certificates and dated 19th-century documents are being produced that really mean nothing. Some of the fakes are so skilfully produced, that even the experts can't tell the difference".

Joanna Vickery, head of the Russian department at Sotheby's, recently appeared on Russian TV saying demand is greater than supply. But while Sotheby's and Christie's accept that the Russian market is problematic, they insist they are using the best experts available to weed out the fakes.

In Moscow, the respected business daily Kommersant has suggested that buyers are already starting to hang back. "Russian art enthusiasts are beginning to consider more closely the authenticity of extravagantly priced Russian artworks in the West," it said. And even the genuine works may prove problematic. The head of the Hermitage in St Petersburg, Mikhail Piotrovsky, said recently that the soaring prices were responsible for a series of thefts from Russian museums.