From Moscow to Madrid: The José Maria Castañé Collection and the Challenges of the Art Market

This is an essay written by Ivan Samarine for 'of Peace and War' - A Spanish Collection of Russian Art by John E. Bowlt, Skira 2013 (

This is a catalogue of an outstanding collection of Russian drawings, paintings and watercolours. In its pages, the reader will come across the principal movements, themes and preoccupations of Russian art in the period of the late 19th century up to the Second World War. Many of the most famous Russian artists of the time are represented, and scholars and enthusiasts of Russian art and culture will find much to admire, learn and discuss.

But this is a collection put together almost entirely outside Russia's borders, by a man brought up in Barcelona living in Madrid, without access to unlimited resources, and who does not even speak Russian. The story of how such a thing is possible, and of how the collection came to be, is itself an aspect of Russian history, and in particular of the extraordinary Russian 20th century, when lives, culture and art were scattered for three generations by the winds of revolution and ideology. The human tragedy is well documented, but these winds also scattered extraordinary works of art in all directions. It is to the glory of the art market, a fact for which it is not always given sufficient credit, that it was able to filter and catalogue these things and accumulate them, singly and in collections. The winds have started to blow back East, but in Madrid, on the fourth floor of a handsome 19th century apartment building, they have left behind the collection of José María Castañé.

It was my privilege to have been an inside witness to both the formation of the collection and to the workings of the late 20th and early 21st century Russian art market. The collection itself has here been admirably catalogued by John E. Bowlt, and José María Castañé has written a fascinating account of how he came to build it. What follows is an attempt to describe the art market during this period. The collection was formed between 1990 and the present day, with the majority of the works having been acquired before 2005. This was a time during which the international art market expanded at a phenomenal rate, and of course it also coincided with the break-up of the Soviet Union, and the re-appearance on the market, after a gap of three generations, of Russian collectors.

How Russian art came to be in the West during the 20th century has been the subject of much study recently. Principally, it came through direct and indirect sales from the Soviet Union, particularly before the Second World War through such outlets as Armand Hammer . But it came also through official sales, even as recently as 1967, when Christies in London sold the Kremlin Imperial porcelain service, consigned directly by the Soviet government; it came through exhibitions held abroad by Russian artists from the 19th century onwards; and through foreigners, tourists, diplomats and specialists working in the Soviet Union bringing things back with them. Most importantly it came through emigration, either when displaced Russians brought it with them, or as a result of a whole generation of artists relocating to Western Europe and America, and continuing to produce work there. Finally Finland, which had been a Russian Grand Duchy until 1917, was rich in Russian art; Il'ia Repin did not emigrate, but simply found that his house and all its contents on the outskirts of St. Petersburg was now in another country. There was plenty of material available outside Russia, but there were no buyers with the exception of a tiny handful of enlightened foreigners, of whom José María Castañé is a leading example. It is another fascinating aspect of his collection that it contains pictures which found themselves outside Russia for all of the above reasons. Necessarily a collection that could not have been put together in Russia, it is a representative selection of the sort of material that was available outside Russia's borders at a certain time in history.

Although he had been fascinated by Russian history and politics from an early age, José María Castañé, a devoted connoisseur of the arts in general and painting in particular, first travelled to Russia only in 1990. Like many tourists, he visited the Tretiakov Gallery, where he was profoundly moved by a museum full of pictures of the highest quality, the authors of which were almost entirely unknown to him. On his return to Madrid, he began to investigate whether it would be possible to acquire Russian paintings in the West, and soon he began to subscribe to the Russian picture sales of the leading auction houses, and to make his first purchases. He understood immediately that Russian pictures were extraordinarily cheap when compared, quality for quality, with the paintings of any other nation, and although the next twenty years were to hold many twists and turns, including a period when that very maxim was turned on its head , this catalogue is the result of his patience, persistence and dedication.

The late 1980s were boom times for the world art market, with Impressionist paintings regularly making millions of pounds for the first time. The media became very interested in the phenomenon, and the Times had a saleroom correspondent who reported from the auction houses every day. The sales of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, and then of his Irises , made headlines around the world. I joined the newly formed Russian department of Sotheby's in 1988, at the invitation of the great icon expert and Russophile, John Stuart . Nobody disturbed, or even seemed to notice, our tiny department, which had a turnover in 1989 of something in the region of £1.5 million ($2.5m). Financially, our market was dominated by icons, which were collected by a small number of devotees, particularly Dutch and Germans, as well as Greeks who bought their own icons; and Fabergé, which was bought by collectors from all over the world, but particularly Americans. Against this background we also sold Russian paintings.

I was fortunate that I was allowed to do my job and learn about Russian painting at a time when there were no "new" fakes (it was not worth making them), and when a Russian masterpiece cost a few thousand pounds, not hundreds of thousands. Estimation was easy: a good drawing was £1,000, a good small picture was £2,000, a good big picture was £4,000, a masterpiece was £8,000 and an Aivazovsky was £10,000. Ivan Aivazovsky, the celebrated 19th century seascape painter, was bought by Greeks, Turks and especially by the wealthy Armenian diaspora. The rest was bought by a tiny handful of Russian émigrés who had some money -- Mstislav Rostropovich was the most prominent of these -- and by foreigners. There was a certain fashion for Sergei Diaghilev and the world of the Russian Ballet, and there was also always a demand for decorative pictures -large landscapes, imperial portraits or interiors. These were bought by foreign collectors and dealers for their decorative value, and because they were cheap. There was also always an attempt on our side to promote the "rare" and the "important". John liked to think of the auction catalogue as a broadsheet for the promotion of Imperial Russia. Pictures were used as a springboard to explain Russian history for a non-Russian audience and importance was given to paintings that related to well-known people or events, whether these were 1812, the Crimean war, or Russian literature. Pushkiniana was a favoured category; we doubled the estimate of a Biedermeier portrait of a pretty girl when it was discovered that Pushkin had once spent the night with her. A portrait of the naval commander Grand Duke Alexei (famous for a life of "fast women and slow ships") would certainly attract a longer footnote than a second-rate landscape by Konstantin Korovin. Thanks to John Stuart we had fantastic footnotes on Princes, Grand Dukes and ambassadors, catalogued the personal photograph albums of the Emperor's sister, and rediscovered - after seventy years - the lost Sokolov archive on the murder of Nicholas II and his family.

The market began to change in 1992, when the first ever “New Russian” client appeared. He belonged to an intermediary generation; a Russian Jewish émigré, who had lived in Europe for some years he had a foot in both camps. He had become extremely wealthy in just a year, using his knowledge of the West and his language skills to negotiate oil and gas deals with Western companies on behalf of newly privatized Russian firms. There had been rumours that the sale of the 16th of June would be a great success because Mr F. was coming. Indeed, to the exhibition came a man dressed in a Gianni Versace leather suit, who told anyone who would listen that at the auction on the following day he would be buying this, that and the third thing. I imagined he was showing off, and might not even make it to the sale, but he did, and bought exactly what he said he would buy. His method was to put his hand up and not take it down until he had bought it. We had never seen bidding like that.

Six months later, by the time of the next sale, Mr. F. already had some competition; Russians were now making deals directly with the West, and no longer had need of middlemen. Within two years there were suddenly plenty of Russian buyers, many with Moscow addresses. By the time of the last sale at Sotheby's that John Stuart and I catalogued, in December 1995, over 70% of the picture buyers were Russian.

The new Russian taste began to make itself apparent; the first generation of wealthy Russian buyers was educated in Soviet schools with the same Soviet textbooks, in which “national” Russian art was much praised and illustrated. Paintings by Shishkin, Levitan, Repin and Aivazovsky were keenly fought over, for they were the biggest names. The early 20th century, the World of Art and the avant-garde, more cosmopolitan and less favoured by the Soviet authorities, were, therefore, less familiar to these new oligarchs. Conversely, "Western" interests, such as ballet material, which often took the form of rather small works on paper, lagged behind. On a lower level, any large decorative landscape by a Russian painter became extremely desirable, for this was also a time of house building and real estate purchases by Russians, both at home and abroad, which meant there were huge numbers of empty walls to be filled. But all Russian art rose steeply in price, and Western buyers were gradually squeezed out of the market.

Of course, art collecting has a rich and revered tradition in the country; Catherine the Great, with expert advice, managed to buy just about anything of value that appeared on the 18th century art market; and all the Emperors continued this tradition. In the 19th century, wealthy businessmen such as Pavel Tretiakov, Savva Mamontov, Sergei Shchukin, Ivan Morozov and many others created great private collections which now form the basis of Russian national museum holdings. Some newly wealthy Russians sought, and still seek, to fill this template. Buying a Russian work of art in London and bringing it back to Moscow could also be construed as a patriotic thing to do, and in the early 1990s this idea informed some banks and such bodies as Raisa Gorbachova's Russian Cultural Foundation. The reaction in Russia itself was one of astonishment at the huge prices, the unpredictability and - in some circles - of the vulgarity of the phenomenon. The logical Russian mind, so recently released from Soviet shackles, struggled to come to terms with this most incomprehensible of capitalist markets, and books were published which contained bizarre mathematical formulae to calculate the financial value of a painting - one of these was in the form of wheels within wheels, which could be aligned according to such criteria as "area of painting in square cm" and "age of painting".

Buying patterns in the 1990s were indeed haphazard and difficult to predict. People would appear, buy extremely strongly for a year or two, and then disappear completely. Not only were fortunes being quickly made, by people who had never had any money before; they were also being quickly lost. Some clients, whom we mistook for collectors, would pay an outlandish price for the work of a certain artist in one auction, and then, when an even better one appeared six months later, they would ignore it - because the painting they bought last year was for a certain space on a certain wall, now filled. Others got the mania for collecting - or perhaps just bidding - but did so without any advice or direction, and quickly became disillusioned. Last year's buyers frequently became next year's sellers, and turned handsome profits, despite having paid well over the estimated price just a couple of years before. But what was for sure was that Russian clients loved the auction process, the brand of the old English names, the glamour of New Bond Street and St. James's, and the casino atmosphere of the salerooms themselves.

Both auction houses cleverly held the sales in rooms not large enough to accommodate seating for everybody. There were people standing, people perched on steps and railings. Russian TV, fascinated, would always be filming from one corner. Oligarchs paraded their girlfriends, who would deliberately arrive after the auction had started, to give themselves a hushed audience while they sauntered down the aisle in provocative dresses. Galina Vishnevskaya , a Russian superstar, would survey the scene with a slightly disapproving eye, ignoring the ingratiating smiles of those around her. The English auctioneer would try to pronounce some words of welcome in Russian, and then it would begin. Some results would be greeted with shouted out obscenities, causing ripples of laughter and in this explosive atmosphere there would inevitably be bidding wars, which it seemed to me were as often as not personal battles, rather than a reflection of a genuine desire to acquire whatever picture was being fought over.

Fakes began to appear, first in small quantities, then in floods. Until the early 1990s, there had of course been some fakes of a previous generation: principally Aivazovsky, Levitan and Shishkin, often copies of well known works with crudely added signatures, which had hung for two generations in some émigré home, a false ambassador from a dimly remembered place and time. But now that prices began to rocket, a production of increasingly sophisticated brand new fakes began to be released on to the market from busy studios in St. Petersburg, Brooklyn and Tel Aviv. At first, seeking to maximize profits, these would also concentrate on the biggest names. Fakers would take genuine old paintings and either scrape the canvases clean and start again, or simply paint over them. Craquelure and the effects of age would be induced in ovens or by rolling up the canvas. Dirt was liberally and often strangely applied. Labels and inscriptions were faked. But these new productions were the easiest to spot, and few made it to the auctioneer's rostrum. Fakers changed their tactics, and began to concentrate on much lesser known names. Minor artists whose work was perhaps represented by a couple of pictures in the Tretiakov Gallery, and a few in a provincial museum; but on whom there was no published literature. Even worse, they would buy European paintings in small Scandinavian auctions, remove genuine signatures and replace them with Russian ones. Varnishes were used that would not show the alteration under ultra-violet light. There were scandals, and an ever-increasing reliance on the written "expertises" of Russian museums, without which it was nearly impossible to sell any picture. It came to the point where it seemed that people were collecting pieces of paper rather than works of art. But these “expertises” were themselves often faked or obtained dishonestly. Catalogues of known forgeries were published in Moscow, but muddied the waters further by including genuine pictures with the crude text "Warning! Possible fake!"

In the first decade of the 21st century, the market began to expand and to mature. Prices continued to rise, which had the effect of flushing paintings out of unexpected places. The general public and worldwide antique trade had by now become well aware of the idea that Russian paintings were valuable, and actively sought them out. Scandinavia in particular produced one undiscovered masterpiece after another, usually a painting that had been brought back from Russia by a Scandinavian engineer or specialist in the early Soviet period. American museums began to discover long-forgotten Russian pictures in their basements, which they could “"e-acquisition". The first wave of oligarchs was replaced by a generation more interested in the early 20th century and the avant-garde. Works of the 18th and early 19th century became extremely rare, and as a result less collected. The establishment of a genuine growing middle class in Moscow and St. Petersburg brought ever more buyers to the market, and they sought out new fields, where there was material available. There was a fascination with the émigré world, and émigré Paris in particular. Artists who had made their reputation entirely in the West, and those of Russian descent who formed part of the pre-war Ecole de Paris were bought in some cases directly from the studio through their descendants. The pictures would then be exhibited in Russia, promoted and become the subject of collection.

The financial crisis of 2008 had the effect of polarizing the entire world art market. The best and most sought after things continued to rise in price, while the squeeze on the middle classes robbed them, in Russia and elsewhere, of the confidence to spend money on art, and this hit the value of the middle and lower end of the market. In the meantime Russian clients have become one of the most important sectors of the art market overall, buying heavily in all fields, not just Russian. In effect, twenty-three years after the collapse of Communism, one could say that the dust has begun to settle, and the market has become normal.

I first made the acquaintance of José Maria Castañé when one day in 1993 I was asked to show him some pictures that were coming up in a forthcoming auction. Until then, his name was associated in my mind with some astute purchases from previous auctions, but I did not know who he was. From our first meeting I understood that Mr. Castañé was unlike any of the other occasional foreign buyers; he was focused, systematic, and eager to expand his collection of Russian art into something that would have a meaning beyond just a haphazard assembly of pictures. His main interest was not in the traditional 19th century painters favoured by those new Russians, but in the early 20th century and often in neglected names.. Fortunately for me, he was a collector wise enough to ask for professional help.

For the next two decades, every Russian catalogue would be analysed and discussed, targets identified and bids agreed. Investment was not a consideration; on the contrary, I always had the impression that he considered money he put into his art collection as more or less lost, and this being the case, it was absolutely imperative that he really liked what he bought. His reaction to the ever-rising prices was unlike that of many others, who panicked, stopped buying and eventually sold up. He was patient and perspicacious enough to understand that there would always be opportunities, and so it has proved. On receipt of a new auction catalogue, he would be quick to identify his targets, and unafraid to suggest pictures that appealed to him even when the painters were little-known. He would be interested to hear suggestions, and enjoyed discussions and counter arguments as to why a particular target might be more suitable than another. He would then retreat for a couple of days, and finally re-emerge with his mind made up, and he would issue clear and decisive instructions. If successful with his bids, he would be delighted; if not, he quickly moved on and did not let himself brood on the disappointment. The collection is, as mentioned earlier, a product of its time, but the selection reflects the character of its compiler. Of course it contains explosive works of the utmost rarity, such as a 1916 "architectonic painting" by Popova, and a 1924 still life by Petrov-Vodkin, painted while he was in Paris, and then given to his friend and patron Sergei Koussivitzky . But it also contains an extremely rich selection of drawings and watercolours, which surprise and delight more by their subtlety and technical excellence than by any loud extravagance. What we see here is an exploration of Russia through its visual arts. José Maria Castañé, like many people growing up in Europe in the 20th century, was educated to be mistrustful of Russia and its motives. That he could, as if in answer to these questions, put together a collection of such visual aesthetic and intellectual treats is a testament to him; and of course, to the enduring spirit of Russian culture itself.