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© RIA Novosti. Valeriy Levitin

The art market, with a scholar’s eye

by Nathan Gray at 19/11/2012 15:44

As in the old joke about the child of a family of circus performers who runs away to join a law firm, Mikhail Kamensky never wanted to go into the family business of art history and criticism.

“It was a kind of youthful rebellion, I think,” said Kamensky, who since 2007 has been the managing director of Sotheby’s auction house for the CIS. “I was probably not academic enough to spend my time on writing at that time, so I preferred something more dynamic.”

The more “dynamic” career he chose was teaching English at a Moscow secondary school, to students from 12 to 16, but he said he never felt the satisfaction other teachers have from the profession. Born in Moscow in 1959, he started teaching after graduation from the Lenin Pedagogical University in 1981.

The emergence of perestroika, however, brought him back to his parents’ hopes that he would pursue the study of art, as in 1984 he began postgraduate study of esthetics at the State Theater Institute, GITIS.

“I wanted to be a part of the political and cultural development, and not stay in the very conservative atmosphere [of the schools],” he said.

An eye for film

As a university student the first time around, Kamensky worked doing simultaneous translations for English-language films, not only at Moscow film festivals, but also at private screenings – occasionally at dachas of members of the Communist Party’s Central Committee.

Having to concentrate on the films so intensely made him aware of visual patterns, an awareness he was hoping to exploit in the political world after defending his Ph.D. in 1988.

“I was trying to find my way into modern politics not as a politician, but as a person who could implement his knowledge of visual culture and his knowledge of Soviet reality as an imagemaker,” Kamensky said.

The only engagement with politics he could find at the time, though, was as a sociologist with the Russian Theater Union, reporting on the reflections in late-’80s theater of the radical changes in Soviet life, from Siberia to Tajikistan.

In 1991, he began his work in the art world with one of Russia’s first private art fairs, Art-Mif. The job also brought his first foray into art journalism, with a weekly magazine published by Kommersant. Stints followed at establishments such as Alfa-Art – an arm of Mikhail Fridman’s Alfa Group and Russia’s first art auction house – as well as the Pushkin Museum and the Institute of the Study of Art.

“I ran my own gallery, was employed by numerous banks as an adviser, worked for the Pushkin Museum and an art research academic institution,” Kamensky said. “A lot of experience I received as a correspondent of the Kommersant magazine. It’s a perfect combination, it helps me a lot, and I know people from all of these worlds.”

The market in context

The outlook for the market now has changed significantly since his days with Art-Mif. As with the economy in general, key shifts correspond to major economic and political events.

Prior to 1998, corporate collections were all the rage – good for PR and for investment – but after the crisis of that year, many corporations sold their collections, their executives focusing instead on private collections.

“The major collection that was on the market as a collection was the most famous and the biggest of the pre-crisis period, Inkombank,” Kamensky said. “Inkombank was famous for its collection, and after it went bankrupt, funnily enough, it is still in the memory and will live on in the historical records, only because it had a very high-quality, very big collection of art.”

At the collection’s heart was a version of Kazimir Malevich’s “Black Square,” sold privately to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg.

“All other corporate collections that were sold, due to bankruptcy or theft or mismanagement, were not sold at an auction, in contrast to the collection of Inkombank,” Kamensky added. “They sold it officially, openly, through the auction. All other collections were sold privately, in the silent mode, and I don’t know what is where, and how it was sold.”

The market today

While the market for older works – masters and the early 20th century – is mostly stable, for contemporary Russian art, the level of interest has been declining since the middle of the last decade.

“There was a very strong, influential and wealthy group of people who started to collect contemporary Russian art in the middle of the 2000s,” he said. “They believed in the program of Dmitry Medvedev, but when it became clear that not only his presidency was coming to its end but that the whole political trend was dying, they either stopped developing their businesses or preferred to live outside Russia, and they stopped collecting contemporary Russian art.”

Kamensky feels that the situation is gradually improving and that the general outlook for the art market is positive, partly due to the weak performance of stock markets.

“Many people who get dissatisfied with the stock market, they reinvest, and part of their new investments is in the arts,” he said. “But this is not a Russian trend; it is a kind of a global investor’s fashion – to reinvest in art. It explains a lot about our success in recent contemporary, Impressionist or modern art sales.”

For the immediate future, Kamensky’s eyes are on major sales in London on Nov. 26 and 27, the centerpiece of which is a significant Andrei Tarkovsky archive.

As for his personal artistic favorites, they come from the two decades between 1915 and 1935.

“Pre-revolutionary and post-revolutionary, and a little bit of the young and very powerful painting of the early Soviet period,” he said. “It’s a combination of avant-garde and post-avant-garde and realism – not all abstract.

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