LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Pared-down Russian art sales in London next week will test of the strength of the market, and more particularly the appetite of super-wealthy buyers from the former Soviet Union, amid global economic turmoil.
Russian buyers were instrumental in sending values for rare works of all categories of art soaring in recent years, and their interest has helped underpin the weakening fine art market since the recession struck.
Next week Sotheby's and Christie's hold "mid-season" sales of Russian and Ukrainian art, and the pre-auction estimates underline how much the market has shrunk in the last 12 months.
Sotheby's in London holds a series of sales centering around the evening auction on Monday and expects to raise 15-22 million pounds ($24-35 million) overall, compared with pre-sale estimates of 29-41 million pounds at the same time in 2008.
The actual amount raised in June 2008 was 39.7 million pounds, including buyer's premium.
Jo Vickery, head of the Russian art department in London, acknowledged that the economic and political background this year was "so different" from last, but added:
"Collecting is a passion, and we've concentrated particularly in this collection on works that have come out of private collections and are fresh to the market.
"In Russian art, we're still re-discovering works that were lost and are now coming to the market for the first time," she told Reuters at Sotheby's showrooms, where the works to be auctioned were on display.
One such "discovery" is an oil painting by Isaak Brodsky dated 1912 and called "Nanny With Children."
It was acquired in the 1950s by a collector in Italy who believed he was buying a long-lost work by Claude Monet.
He assumed the previous owners had disguised the work in order to take it out of post-revolutionary Russia, and had a strip of canvas added to make it conform to what he believed was more typical of the French Impressionist school.
Sotheby's helped to identify the picture's true provenance, and the Brodsky is expected to raise 300-500,000 pounds.
The top lot on sale is a pair of gold-colored porcelain vases once owned by a relative of murdered Russian Czar Nicholas II, estimated at 1.2-1.8 million pounds.
Sotheby's is also aiming to tap what it says is a growing appetite among Russian and Western buyers for contemporary Russian and Ukrainian art with a separate sale featuring works by the likes of Alexander Kosolapov and Komar and Melamid.
Christie's holds a single Russian sale on Tuesday where it expects to raise 3.3-4.9 million pounds. Last year at the equivalent auction it raised 11.3 million pounds including buyer's premium.
Editing by Steve Addison