"Miracles Don't Happen When It Comes to Buying Russian Art"
I meet James Butterwick, one of the most prominent Western dealers in Russian Art, at his gallery in Ravenscourt Park amidst the so-called “Russian Art Week” - the third week of November when a wide range of Russian Art-related events are offered in and around Mayfair. The elegant grey walls of the brightly lit gallery space are attached to James’s family house, and he very cordially gives me a tour of his beautifully arranged art collection as we make our way from the private rooms into the gallery premises.
The gallery houses some very fine examples of the Russian avant-garde, including works by the record-breakers Natalya Goncharova, Mikhail Larionov and Boris Grigoriev, however Mr Butterwick is extremely excited about his most recent acquisition: a large canvas by a prominent master of the Soviet Nonconformist art Oleg Vassiliev (see image).
Aliya Sayakhova: James, you are well-known in the art world, primarily as a dealer and collector specialising in Russian Art of 1890–1920. Are you now shifting your interest towards later periods, and what explains such a move?
James Butterwick: First of all, this period is still very cheap (even though I did pay a monstrous amount for this particular Vassliev). But the main reason is, of course, availability. I can’t buy great Russian art of the beginning of the 20th century for less than several million, and quite often you don't get a picture which is good enough even for that kind of money. Everyone is chasing it, and it has become very, very difficult.
So it’s much better, in my opinion, to now look at different periods. A great Goncharova is going to cost you about 5,5 million pounds, maybe even more, and a lot of people are going to be after it. You can find Larionov at auctions but none of them are great pictures - they are good pictures, but not great. And I like to sell great pictures, exciting pictures, unusual pictures. So that’s why I am now starting to look at the Non-conformists, where you can still find great artworks for relatively reasonable amounts of money.
Figure 2: Oleg Vassiliev (1931-2013)
‘Artists in New York’ (1991)
Oil and mixed media on canvas 165 x 256 cm.
Image courtesy the James Butterwick Gallery, London
AS: Another option, of course, would be selling works on paper instead of oils, which I think you are already doing quite extensively.
JB: I’ve always done that, because I always liked works on paper. I usually set a limit of around £200-300,000 when I buy art, and this sum can buy you a sensational work on paper. There is more availability of works on paper than there is of oils, that’s why I am interested in them.
AS: This sounds very similar to what is happening today on the Impressionist market where it is almost impossible to get a good picture.
JB: Exactly the same. The more I am on the market, the less great pictures I am seeing, which means that the supply is running out. This is why non-conformists seem to be a very good buy – and some of them are very good artists.
Figure 3: Alexander Bogomazov (1880-1930)
‘Kreshchatik ’ (1914)
Charcoal on paper
Image courtesy the James Butterwick Gallery, London.
AS: You say it’s a very good buy, but what about the demand?
JB: The demand is not particularly strong at the moment. However a couple of years ago we saw how the Red Flag by Komar and Melamid that was recently exhibited at the Saatchi Gallery went for half a million dollars at auction. (1) That shows how strong prices can be.
AS: How about Sotz Realism? Do you think the works praising Lenin and Stalin would ever come into fashion?
JB: I absolutely hate Sotz Realism and won’t have anything with Soviet symbolic in it. It sounds incredibly naïve, but I really do feel that one of the great problems of contemporary Russia is its failure to come to terms with the past.
You can easily argue that the sins of communism are as bad, if not worse, than the sins of fascism. The only difference was that communism has won the war, and fascism has lost the war. If it was the other way round we would all know how ghastly communism was. Just think of the genocide of Ukrainian people when millions died of famine in 1932-1933. (2)
So one of the reasons I refuse to sell art with the Soviet symbolic is because to me there is no difference between hammer and sickle and swastika. I wouldn’t have a picture with a swastika in it – why on earth would I have a picture with Lenin or Stalin in it?
Figure 4: Boris Kustodiev (1878-1927)
Cover for the magazine ‘Red Panorama’. ‘On the River Bank, Spring’ (1927)
Signed l.r. ‘B. Kustodiev 1927’. Watercolour on paper, 30 x 22 cm.
Image courtesy the James Butterwick Gallery, London
AS: Let's move on to post-Soviet countries then. I know that another area of expansion for you is Kazakhstan, and you are planning to open a gallery in Almaty. Kazakh collecting is a topical subject at the moment, so, please, tell us more.
JB: I have a very vibrant business in Kazakhstan, it’s really exciting and it’s moving forward. Kazakhstan is a country of tremendous potential of buying art, people are lovely and they are open to new ideas.
Don’t forget they have a brilliant Kasteev Museum in Almaty that hosts a marvellous collection of Russian avant-garde art including works by Petrov-Vodkin, Konchalovsky, Filonov and many others. Whereas Moscow is a depressed market at the moment.
AS: Are Kazakh collectors much different from Russian collectors in the early 2000s? How would you describe the predominant Central Asian taste?
JB: A lot of new countries want to collect what they regard as their national art. Well, there isn’t any Kazakh national art. Primarily they are buying Western Art: Kazakh collectors are tremendous brand-buyers, and well-known Impressionists is what they are looking for. I sold a few Russian things down there. I know couple of collectors who are putting some very fine collections of works on paper, including pictures by Benois, Petrov-Vodkin, and so on.
We got to a point where we are ready to open a gallery there, and we are planning to launch with an exhibition of Impressionists from Western private collections, which would be the first of its kind.
JB: If tomorrow somebody said ‘Would you like to take part in Maastricht?’ I would bite their hand off. Unfortunately it’s extremely hard to get in, and the queue is monumental.
AS: Why don't you choose one of the 300 art fairs that take place in London every year?
JB: Because Maastricht is a blue ribbon and I only want to be present at the very best one. Even though I would contemplate Basel, and the young fair called Masterpiece. Russian art fairs are always a great fun and very successful, and I always win awards for the best stand, but it’s become a chore. So I would love to take part in Maastricht instead, which is cream of the cream. Can you organise it? – I would be thrilled!
AS: Sure, as soon as we finish the interview!
Historically dealers and auction houses have been mortal enemies. However this is certainly not true in your case as the new James Butterwick gallery was officially inaugurated last year by Sotheby's chairman Mark Poltimore.
JB: First of all, I really like the people who work at Sotheby's. How can you not like Mark Poltimore?! He is such a charming person and he is a consummate professional. The entire team is very lovely, and in my opinion they are the best Russian department in the entire Russian Art world. They take the most care with authenticating objects. They are the benchmark.
And furthermore, I don’t have any enemies in this world: maybe there are 2 or 3 people who don’t particularly like me.
AS: Authenticity of artworks is the subject of your specific interest. You lecture a lot about fakes on the Russian Art market, and you were particularly outraged by the recent scandal regarding the new Goncharova catalogues by Andrew Parton and Denise Bazetoux which presumably contain around 150 "newly-discovered" Goncharovas.
How do you manage to sell anything at all when you constantly raise the issue of the huge amount of fakes on the Russian art market?
JB: I only sell works that have impeccable provenance, and I always say that ‘miracles don’t happen’: crystal-clear provenance is the sole way to stay away from dubious works and avoid disappointment in the future.
AS: I hope none of the Russian collectors who flocked London this week would rely on a typically Russian avos’ (I'll-get-lucky attitude) when making their precious acquisitions!
1. Breaking the Ice: Moscow Art 1960-1980s, (Author’s remark) For auction result please visit the Sotheby’s website: http://www.sothebys.com/en/catalogues/ecatalogue.html/2010/contemporary-art-evening-auction-l10022 - /r=/en/ecat.fhtml.L10022.html+r.m=/en/ecat.lot.L10022.html/53/
Cover Image: James Butterwick in Kiev
Image courtesy James Butterwick Gallery, London