Petr Aven on collecting Russian Art
15.04.2019
В интервью с журналом Forbes Life Петр Авен рассказывает, во сколько оценивает свою коллекцию русской живописи , почему в его доме все еще висят поддельные работы и как бросание монеты определяет судьбу картин в его коллекции. Оригинальная статья на русском языке доступна на веб-сайте Forbes , в то время как RA Gallery предлагает перевод на английский язык для наших англоговорящих читателей.

In an interview with Forbes Life, Peter Aven reveals how much he estimates his collection of Russian painting , why there are fake works still hanging in his house and how a toss of a coin determines the fate of paintings in his collection. The original article in Russian is available on the Forbes website, meanwhile RA Gallery is offering the English translation for our non-Russian speaking readers.


Les maisonnettes rouges , 1922, Marc Chagall in the collection of Petr Aven

Peter Aven revealed his collection of painting in 2008, when he published a catalog. Then came the time for his other collections to shine: his collections of Soviet porcelain and agitlak were exhibited at All-Russian Museum of Decorative, Applied and Folk Art, and in early 2019, the Museum hosted a presentation of the collection catalog of his Abramtsevo circle ceramics. Peter Aven spoke with Forbes Life about the role of the patron in art history, the difficulties of collecting and cooperation with museums.

Five years ago, Forbes ranked the most expensive collections. Yours was estimated at $500 million. How much would you value it at today?
PA: In recent years, no fundamental changes in the collection have happened. Although I do have some new sculptures of Louise Bourgeois, Henry Moore and Thomas Schutte.

A figure of $2 billion appeared in the Western press.
PA: $2 billion is definitely overestimated. Furthermore, Russian Art hasn’t become more expensive, and I haven’t bought any great Russian pieces over the past five years.

In order for Russian art to grow in price, it must be promoted in the West, and non-standard exhibitions need to be organized for it to shine. When in 2015, Ronald Lauder and I were preparing an exhibition from our two collections in New York “Russian Modernism: the intersection of German and Russian art. 1907–1917” director of Neue Galerie and experts resisted the idea of ​​the exhibition, believing that the public would not attend it. But the exhibition caused a boom and the visitors stood in line for four months.

Our, Russian, expressionist artists are definitely not any weaker than the Germans, but they are still cheaper on the market. In the coming years I plan to hold several exhibitions and then decide what to do with the collection. Perhaps I will open a gallery of Russian art on the principle of Neue Galerie.

Once you said that you have no vaults, all the paintings are hanging, all of the collections are arranged. How is this organized? Latvian Art in Latvia, Russian Art in Moscow?
PA: Differently. This is due to my desire to show collections. I have a pretty open house. Painting is hung in Moscow and London, all of the china and agitlak is in London. Vrubel's majolica (Majolica refers to Italian tin-glazed pottery dating from the Renaissance period. It’s decorated in colours on a white background, and sometimes depicts historical or mythical scenes. RA Gallery) looks good in Moscow, in the house built in 1935 (in fact, it is a large wooden hut). And Latvian art is in Latvia.

Peter Olegovich, different collections require different knowledge, different collector temperament. How different is collecting, for example, painting and Vrubel’s majolica?
PA: Collecting Vrubel's ceramics is hard. Very few things exist, each one is literally one of a kind. I searched for it at Sotheby’s and Christie’s auctions. But the bulk of things remained in the old Moscow intelligentsia families.

When I began to buy, I gained fame in the market, and they began to bring me work. Most of the things I bought from a wonderful dealer, art historian Mikhail Alexandrovich Fadeev. Everything is quiet and peaceful, in contrast to painting, where there were different detective stories with purchases, chases, threats, and heirs.

What kind of drama awaits a collector of Russian painting?
PA: I’ve purchased fake works several times. Two are now hanging at my house. One of the paintings was sold to me by famous art critics. I am sure they knew what they were doing. All these revelations are very unpleasant, it’s a stressful story.

How does this happen? You buy something, look at it and come to realize: something is not right. Specialists from state museums arrive, they say: let's study it more thoroughly. They come to the conclusion that the work is not authentic. That’s how it is. Then you make claims to the one who sold you the piece. I returned one such work, they gave me the money back. And two works remained with me. In principle, my relationship with these people is not over yet, although 20 years have passed since.

What is it like to discover that you have been deceived?
PA: Most of the fakes are porcelain. It is most difficult to determine the authenticity. At some point I began acting with porcelain very simply: I took the things and, if I found out that they were fake, I would not give either the money or the fake things back. I carried out the examination and two or three times I kept the fake plates for myself. When they called me, I replied that I would not return it; I would take it to the police. And once I did. Since then, I have stopped receiving fakes. I only buy porcelain if the three leading experts —Tatyana Kumzerova, Natalya Petrova and Elvira Sametskaya give the conclusion that the piece is in fact authentic. And yet a couple of times I’ve been sold fakes.

Only with ceramics there were no such problems. The fact is that it is almost impossible to forge Vrubel’s majolica. Therefore, there is no issue of identification. Vrubel was a genius. Although it’s in the Neo-Russian style, the ideas of Aksakov, who Abramtsevo belonged to before the Mamontovs, are not close to me ideologically. The Abramtsevo art quest is a very Slavophile kind of art. And I’m actually quite a western person. But the originality of Vrubel’s ideas is absolutely fantastic. His “Demon”, for example, was painted when nobody had even thought about Cubism yet.

The presentation of the catalog of your collection of Abramtsevo ceramics was held at the All-Russian Museum of Decorative and Folk Art. Is the next step — an exhibition?
PA: Right now we are working on a great exhibition of Soviet porcelain and agitlak in 2020 in London. And afterwards, the exhibition of Abramtsevo ceramics. I published the catalog of my collection in two languages, in order to promote the ceramics abroad.

I think these exhibitions will shock the West. Both Soviet porcelain, agitlak, and Vrubel's majolica are amazing, but almost unknown things. By the way, much like Russian painting. After all, when they say "modern", they mean the French modernism; they say "jugendstil", they mean the Germans and Austrians. Russia remains on the sidelines. Although we have created our own national school of modernity with a brilliant artist at the head.

Items from my collection were at the exhibition at the Academy of Fine Arts in London in 2017. Petrov-Vodkin’s work was from the collection of the State Russian Museum as well as my own. Petrov-Vodkin is a great artist, but unknown in the West. And, of course, Vrubel. I have almost a complete collection of Vrubel’s sculptural majolica. I have not been offered to buy anything for a couple of years now.

How did you shape your collections, on what principles?
PA: At first I thought of what to collect and how, and then I began to collect it. It is important to collect a systematic and interesting collection, in which there is a clear narrative. It seems rather strange to just buy expensive western painting. Modern art is still fine, perhaps you’d be able to collect something new.

I very much welcome the fact that Mikhelson created the first modern Western art museum in Russia, a systematic museum collection. But unlike Leonid Mikhelson, a mass of people just buy expensive Western things, from Monet to Leonardo da Vinci. It seems to me to be a meaningless venture.

If you’re building a collection, you must have your own narrative, your own opinion, different from the rest. We have very little of this, unfortunately.

At what point did you know what exactly and how you’re going to collect it?
PA: I already understood a lot about painting when I was 13 years old. I wanted to collect the “Jack of Diamonds” when I was still in school. I tried to persuade my father to buy paintings, but he didn’t want to do that. Therefore, as soon as I got the money, I began to build a collection of Russian pre-revolutionary art. Now it seems obvious, but in the early 1990s Goncharova was in the vaults, no one particularly showed Larionov either. Of course, professionals like Gleb Pospelov or Dmitry Sarabyanov understood and knew everything well. And I began to build a collection, which at that time could not be seen. I wrote out the main names and began to collect them quite systematically.

In that Forbes list of the most expensive collections are named, around, twenty. But there are practically no collections there. Mostly haphazard selections of expensive items.

There are, of course, collections of porcelain, agitlak from Alexander Dobrovinsky, and the collection with a completely clear narrative from Slava Kantor.

By the way, you somehow split a purchase of a painting by Falk with Kantor. How did you share it?
PA: I have it for half a year, he has it for the other half. That’s how we share. It hasn’t been decided yet who will buy it. We know there are a couple of other works by Falk on the market. If we buy one of them, of the same class, then we will divide accordingly: one goes to me, the other to him. But so far we have not acquired those works.

And when you do acquire it, how will you decide which one goes to whom?
PA: We’ll throw a coin — it will determine what goes to whom. It is even written in our agreement: to be decided by lot. It’s an agreement by English law, where a coin is to be thrown to determine the outcome.