Agence France Presse -- English
December 3, 2004 Friday 4:38 PM GMT

Russians buy back national treasures that went West

LONDON

In a string of London auctions culminating on Friday, newly rich
Russians have spent millions of dollars buying back Russian paintings
and other treasures which ended up in the West both before and after
the 1917 Communist revolution.

Calling the auctions that began Tuesday "Russia week," MacDougall's,
Christie's and Sotheby's sold paintings, porcelain vases, silverwork
and even bottles of Crimean wine that were once stored in the cellars
of the Czars.

In Sotheby's on New Bond Street earlier this week, businessmen,
collectors and agents, all speaking Russian, crowded the corridors
and red-wallpapered auction room snapping up artwork at the rate of
about one a minute.

Dressed in fur coats, svelt, blond-haired Slavic women used Montblanc
pens to make note of the artwork as their husbands, wearing leather
jackets, reviewed the orders and made calls on their portable
telephones before bidding.

London has become a refuge for many "oligarchs," the breed of Russian
billionaires who made their fortunes in oil and other natural
resources following the collapse of communism in 1991. Among the best
known is Roman Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea Football Club.

"The new rich have limitless means but limited knowledge of art,"
said Prince Nikita Lobanov-Rostovsky, the London-based Russian emigre
collector who is a regular at the auction houses.

"They buy at top price to impress their friends. During the highest
bidding, there was applause in the room," the prince told AFP,
speaking in French.

Many of the works of art at auction had ended up in Western countries
after the aristocracy emigrated after the 1917 revolution.

Michael Bing, head of division in Sotheby's Russia Department, said
that it is only now that Russians are able to buy back national
treasures.

"It is their heritage that they are discovering. There is money in
Russia now to acquire it," Bing said.

"Russians are fond of art. They are passionate about their national
history. Put money in their hands and you see the result," he told
AFP.

Though Russians were the main buyers, there were others who had a
strong interest in the art.

An ethnic Armenian collector from New York bought a painting by Ivan
Konstantinovich Aivazovsky, who lived from 1817-1900 and painted many
maritime scenes.

"I go everywhere to buy him (Aivazovsky). I've been collecting him
for 25 years, but prices have gone up 10 fold compared to six years
ago," said the 49-year-old collector who asked not to be named.

"Russians and Armenians are getting rich everywhere. They love him
and they can spend more money," he added.

Several Aivazovsky works rated among the 10 highest sales of the week
at both Sotheby's and Christie's. One of them "St Isaac on a frosty
day" fetched a record 1.1 million pounds (2.1 million dollars or 1.6
million euros).

"I also bought a Faberge (the court jeweller to the Russian royal
family) dinner set. I had no intention to buy it, but my wife liked
it," he said.

The recent surge in prices prompted Christie's to grab a larger share
of the Russian art market, which until now had been dominated by
Sotheby's, the auction house said.

MacDougall's, a new specialized house, staged its first auction,
hoping to profit from the skyrocketing market in London.

The wines that were enjoyed by 19th-century Russian Czars and leader
Joseph Stalin are expected to fetch more than 500,000 pounds at
auction later Friday.

The Russian London Newspaper said that representatives for Russian
President Vladimir Putin were expected to be at the auctions buying
up work for him, but this could not be confirmed.

The newspaper said it was one of the largest sales of Russian art yet
seen in Europe and the biggest in London.