For serious art collectors and investors, news of the explosion of interest in Russian Realist art has been unavoidable. Consider the Sotheby's experience:
In April 2007, Sotheby's in New York ended its most profitable sale of Russian art in its history. In raising $46.7 million, the auction house broke its own sales record, set in London six months earlier, when its Russian art sales netted $38.4 million. That exceeded its previous Russian sales record of $35.1 million. The 180 paintings in the Sotheby's sale earned $32 million. By midyear, the house had seen earnings of more than $107 million from Russian works alone.
At the Sotheby's April sale, "Solomon's Wall," by the 19th century Russian Realist Vasily Vereshchagin, sold for $3.6 million.
The work of Moscow School painters "is one of the fastest-growing markets we've ever seen," Mark Poltimore, deputy chairman of Sotheby's, reported in May 2007, at a viewing of their paintings coming up for auction at Sotheby's in London.
Christie's, meanwhile, has been breaking its own records. In the first half of 2007, the auction house sold $69 million worth of Russian art, almost equaling its $70.5 million in sales for the entire previous year. All told, Christie's Russian art sales have increased more than sevenfold since 2000.
Russian Realist art, it is now clear, represents an attractive investment for both collectors and investors. This school of beautifully conceived and masterfully executed works of genre, landscape and portrait painting has never appreciated faster. "Auction houses report record sale prices," Fine Art Connoisseur reports.
"Russian art is one of the fastest-growing markets we've ever seen."
"This is unprecedented in the modern age," according to the Financial Times. Not "since Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in pre-war Paris have the splendour and triumphant difference of Russian art hit the West so exuberantly."
Russian art is "hot" for several reasons, all of them good.
First, finer paintings have always been and will continue to be a sound investment, regardless of external conditions. But the conditions now are especially favorable. Investing in Russian art represents a hedge against a sinking dollar, portfolio diversification and protects against global currency debasement.
Second, and more specifically, the works of the Moscow School Realists are of surpassing beauty and, being representational rather than conceptualist or abstract. They possess immediate and timeless appeal.
Third, they have only recently been discovered by the West and recognized for their superior quality. This - see below - will increase their demand in coming years.
Finally, the revival of the Russian economy itself has led to increased demand among Russians and among Russian expatriates for representative works of their own countrymen.
As Fortune reported in May 2006: "Sotheby's has identified a large group of rich Russians - newly minted centimillionaires and billionaires - who own much of the wealth in the country and by all appearance are clamoring for artwork."
As the London Independent observed the following month: "The new-found wealth of Russia's elite is having a major impact on the international market for the country's riches." After a steady climb in prices, "the cost of art has taken off in the last three years."
The demand is so great that Christie's and Sotheby's have opened Moscow offices, simply to explore and understand the phenomenon. (Auction houses are forbidden by Russian law to export paintings.)
The rediscovery of Russian Realist art is a compelling story in itself. After being driven underground in the years immediately after the Bolshevik Revolution, these painters persisted in near-anonymity.
This anonymity ended, however, when Soviet officials, eager to showcase the achievements of the Russian people, sought to establish the greatest art schools in the world. To this end, they recruited the realists as instructors and students. The goal was to create new generations of Russian painters who, at a time when most of their European counterparts were experimenting with modernism, carried forth the traditions of the greatest artists of the past.
The extraordinary work of these painstaking artists went on almost unnoticed in the West, which, throughout the Cold War, remained blinded to the achievements of the Russian artists. Aware only of propagandistic Socialist Realist works, Western observers believed Russians capable of producing little more than mock-heroic kitsch. During the Soviet era, the only international market for Russian art was primarily works of artists who had fled the country.
The resulting ignorance of the realities of Russian artistic achievement, lamentable as it was, had an ironic and unintended consequence. With the fall of the Soviet Union and increased communication between Russia and the West, Westerners came to appreciate the artistry of the Russian Realists and the extraordinary quality of their work.
At this time, a familiar process began to unfold - a process that art investors have witnessed with the rise to prominence of the French Impressionists, the Luminists, the Hudson River School, the Barbizon School, and others.
After an initial decade of discovery, marked by scholarship and limited collecting, comes one of more intensive acquisition, characterized by museum and gallery exhibitions, mounting media attention, the publication of books, major auctions and collecting at all levels.
Within the second decade - the point at which the market for Russian Realist paintings appears today - the value of the art begins to climb precipitously, and demand for the highest quality work soon soar.
With the Russians, however, something else has happened to stimulate the demand for Russian art works. As noted, the Russian economy itself has boomed, resulting in a rise in the number of wealthy Russian businessmen. The number of Russian billionaires, for example, increased from seven in 2002 to more than 50 in 2007. Russia today has more billionaires than any country in the world except for Germany and the United States.
Returning to the traditions of pre-revolution Russia, those Russians with the financial means to become art collectors, have begun to purchase paintings for which there was scant demand in past decades, restricting the supply. As has also happened with other suddenly desirable styles of art, the demand for works of genuine distinction has skyrocketed.
Here again, the timing for investors in Russian Realist art is auspicious. Works by far better-known but no more distinguished Western artists still sell for many times more than those of Russian artists. As the quality of their work become more widely recognized, prices for their finest paintings will reach comparably high levels.
Lazare Gallery enjoys unparalleled access
to the Russian art world
"The emphasis now is shifting to works of higher quality," The Art Newspaper reported in July 2007. Alexis de Tiesenhausen, international director of Russian art at Christie's, says that future growth "in this market will come from high-quality works. It's much better to have a small scale with works of high quality than quantity."
It is precisely these works of distinction that Lazare Gallery searches out and secures through its deep personal relationships with Russian artists. Jonathan Wurdeman, son of Lazare owners and founders, John and Kathy Wurdeman, is himself the only American graduate of the Surikov Art Institute in Moscow.
A resident of the Republic of Georgia, Jonathan has been invaluable to the gallery in making introductions to the master painters of Russian Realism. (The gallery itself is named for the founders' grandchild, Lazare, Georgian for Lazarus.)
As a result, Lazare Gallery enjoys unparalleled access to the Russian art world. Among their friends and associates are many high-ranking art union artists, owners of Russia's finer galleries, owners of Russia's auction houses, directors of Russia's greatest art institutes, Surikov professors and graduates. Honored by Russian museum directors, we are known and respected by the greatest painters themselves. Because of this intimate knowledge of the painters, their works and the market in which they operate, we have a successful history of predicting which painters and paintings will be in greatest demand.
The painters themselves have learned from experience that Lazare Gallery understands and appreciates their work and is committed to handling only their best paintings.
"I am 68 years old and until now never has my family worked with a gallery that purchased only our finest works," says Mikhail Kugach, artist, former chairman of the Russian Artists Union, former director of the Moscow Art Institute and former president of the Moscow River School. "Many galleries want to represent our name and desire what we will sell them for the least amount of money. I like working with Lazare Gallery. They recognize and believe in distinctive quality."