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Russian billionaire spends $120M on paintings

Roman Abramovich represents a new breed of super-rich collector from emerging economies such as China, the Middle East — and, especially, Russia — that is buoying the art market through tough economic times.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Two days, two modern art masterpieces, two record-breaking auction prices — and one buyer: Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich.

A respected art publication says London-based Abramovich was the anonymous buyer of Francis Bacon’s “Triptych” and Lucian Freud’s “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping,” which sold at separate New York auctions last week for a total of $120 million.

Abramovich represents a new breed of super-rich collector from emerging economies such as China, the Middle East — and, especially, Russia — that is buoying the art market through tough economic times.

The Art Newspaper cited sources close to the market as confirming that Abramovich, whose wealth is estimated by the Sunday Times’ Rich List at $22.9 billion, had bought both paintings.

Sotheby’s, which sold the Bacon work; and Christie’s, which auctioned the Freud, refused to provide details about the buyers. A spokesman for Abramovich declined to comment.

Art Newspaper editor Cristina Ruiz said Monday that Abramovich, a former oil magnate who owns London’s Chelsea soccer team, had not been known as a major art-market player.

“We’d never heard of him purchasing anything, and certainly not at this level,” she said. “What’s interesting is he’s come in at the very top of the market, not just in terms of price but in terms of the quality of what he’s purchased. It’s extremely impressive.”

“Benefits Supervisor Sleeping” — a 5-foot by 7-foot painting of Rubenesque model Sue Tilly asleep on a sofa — sold at Christie’s in New York on Tuesday for $33.6 million. Bacon’s huge three-panel work “Triptych 1976” fetched more than $86 million at Sotheby’s the next day.

The sales made Bacon’s painting the most expensive postwar work of art ever sold at auction, and Freud’s the most expensive work by a living artist. The record prices defied fears that the international art market was on the slide due to global economic turmoil and the credit crunch.

Ruiz said Abramovich’s new interest in art may have been guided by his girlfriend, former model Daria Zhukova, who has announced plans to open an art gallery in Moscow.

Like many Russian oligarchs, he may also need new ways to spend his money. He already owns multiple properties, including mansions in England, France and the United States; at least three yachts; a private jet; a $2 million Ferrari race car; and, reportedly, two submarines.

For the super-rich, art is the next frontier. In the past few years, Russian collectors have been buying up works from their homeland, sharply driving up prices for Russian art. Sales of Russian art at Christie’s rose from $27 million in 2004 to $144 million last year, and private galleries as well as auction houses in London and New York are increasingly previewing artworks in Russia in their quest for buyers.

Some buyers appear motivated by a desire to repatriate Russia’s artistic heritage. In 2004, metals tycoon Viktor Vekselberg bought a collection of czarist Faberge eggs that Sotheby’s had intended to put up for auction, and brought them back to Russia.

Last September, Sotheby’s called off a sale of works owned by the late cellist Mstislav Rostropovich after Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov bought the whole $40 million collection.

Lately, they have begin to snap up non-Russian modern works. In 2006, an anonymous Russian bidder bought Picasso’s “Dora Maar au chat” for $95 million, and high-profile works by Mark Rothko and Peter Doig also have recently sold to Russians.

“Every society has its foibles,” said Charles Dupplin, an expert at specialist art insurer Hiscox. “Russians don’t seem to spend a lot of money on racehorses, but they do like modern and contemporary art.”

Such ultra-rich collectors have helped the art market defy predictions of meltdown by driving top-quality works to record prices. Dupplin said the Russian buyers have mostly made their fortunes in commodities and are largely unaffected by the credit crunch.

“They are not bankers or hedge fund managers,” he said. “They have vast quantities of money, and they are keen on spending it.”

But analysts warn that rising prices for everything from food to fuel and an expected wave of financial-sector layoffs have led to a softening of demand at the next level down — works in the $500,000 to $1.5 million range. A growing number of these are going unsold, touching off fears that only the super-rich can take part in the market.

“From the auction houses’ point of view, it’s quite encouraging that they are getting a lot of new collectors from Russia and the Middle East,” said the Art Newspaper’s Ruiz. “That globalization will help sustain the market. At the same time, when one person is responsible for two of the major lots that sold last week, that may be a cause of concern in the future.”