By Elizabeth Howcroft
LONDON (Reuters) -Auction houses Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Bonhams have cancelled sales of Russian art in London in June, part of the art market’s response to Western sanctions on Russia as punishment for its invasion of Ukraine.
The auction houses hold sales of Russian art in June and November in a period known as “Russian Art Week”, attracting wealthy Russian buyers.
Sotheby’s said it had called off its sale of Russian art in London in June.
“We are absolutely rigorous about following the present sanctions, and are monitoring closely for any updates to the lists,” it said in a statement.
Christie’s also said it had cancelled its June sale of Russian art, citing factors including the uncertainty of the war and complex logistical and legal requirements related to sanctions.
“While the current sales market for Christie’s in Russia as a whole is relatively small, we have a responsibility to respond to our clients’ needs and to geopolitical events that are out of our control,” Christie’s said in a statement. The auction house added it is doing “enhanced due diligence” on politically exposed people and those with a connection to sanctioned jurisdictions.
Bonhams did not provide a reason for its decision.
Western countries have taken unprecedented steps to cut ties with Russia, including freezing bank accounts and placing sanctions on Russian billionaires following Russia’s Feb. 24 attack on Ukraine, which it calls a “special operation.”
Britain imposed sanctions on hundreds of Russian individuals and entities on Tuesday as it sought to catch up with the European Union and United States in targeting people accused of propping up Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Putin said on Wednesday that the West was trying to punish Russia by persecuting Russians and by cracking down on Russian music, culture and literature.
“By attempting to cancel Russia, the West has lifted the mask of decency and is acting like louts, showing its true colours,” Putin said.
Some dealers and advisers told Reuters that the international art market as a whole is unlikely to take a hit, as Russian buyer numbers have fallen since the 2008 financial crash and represent a small part of the market.
Sales of Russian works of art totalled 37.7 million pounds ($49.6 million) at Sotheby’s and Christie’s salerooms in London in 2021, less than 1% of turnover, according to Sebastian Duthy, CEO of Art Market Research. Sotheby’s and Christie’s did not immediately confirm the figure.
But while the auction houses face little financial impact, doing business has been made trickier for collectors of Russian art – as well as those who work with them on deals – because of fears of accidentally transacting with Russians who may end up on sanctions lists, say art market advisers.
“It makes it harder for the Russians and it makes it harder for the buyers as well, because you don’t want to be caught buying something coming from a Russian at this point,” said Barbara Guggenheim, a partner at U.S.-based art consultancy Guggenheim, Asher Associates.
New York art lawyer Thomas Danziger said that he was advising clients to be wary of doing deals with Russians who might land on the sanctions list in future.
“We advised one client who was considering making a loan to a Russian museum to step away from the table,” he said.
He said he was worried the artwork might get stuck there: “As Western sanctions multiply, we thought there was a real risk that the client’s artwork might make a one-way trip to Russia and end up being expropriated by the government there.”
Reuters has not identified any incidents of this occurring.
Some Russian art collectors and oligarchs are already keeping a low profile in order to not draw attention to themselves.
“There’ll always be a market for strong pieces so that hasn’t changed but the collectors that I know, some of which are in Russia and some of which are in the West, are just keeping their heads down,” said James Butterwick, a dealer of Ukrainian and Russian art in London, who has repositioned his business to focus more on Ukraine in recent years.
“I asked some Russians for loans, for exhibitions next year, and they were very happy to give them, just anonymously.”
A London spokesperson for Phillips auction house said that while it does not hold a Russia-specific sale, it had stepped up its due diligence: “We are on high alert all the time and right now we are of course being extra vigilant.”
Earlier this month, Matthew Girling, the former CEO of Bonhams, told the Art Newspaper that people should boycott Phillips, which is owned by Russians Leonid Friedland and Leonid Strunin. Friedland and Strunin also own the Mercury Retail Group, one of the largest luxury goods retailers in Russia.
Phillips, which posted a statement in support of Ukraine on Instagram, did not respond to a Reuters request for comment on the calls for a boycott.
Phillips’ London sale on March 3 showed no signs of a hit to demand and the auction house said it donated the 5.8 million pounds ($7.59 million) it brought in from commission and buyer’s premium to the Ukrainian Red Cross.
($1 = 0.7641 pounds)
(Reporting by Elizabeth Howcroft; Editing by Leela de Kretser, Grant McCool and Nick Macfie)