A day after the horrific bombing of a Ukrainian maternity ward, visitors to the Mayfair offices of Russian auction house Phillips couldn’t help but wonder if a preview of the event seemed subdued.
“It was quiet,” said one attendee at the preview, where viewers sipped espressos as vintage German-made Lange watches, tagged with six-figure prices in dollars and Swiss francs , were behind display cases for an exhibition next month.
The event – and upcoming auctions – will also be a litmus test of sentiment towards Phillips, who insists it’s ‘business as usual’ in the face of a boycott by respected art world figures. .
Despite the £5.8million donation to the Ukrainian Red Cross at a recent auction in London, and its CEO condemning the Russian invasion, those calling for the company to be avoided argue that only a boycott will force its Russian business figures – such as its owners Leonid Friedland and Leonid Strunin – to pressure the Kremlin.
“They provided the donation, but it’s really not back to business as usual, and I think buyers and shippers should take their business elsewhere. I don’t think anyone should be dealing with Russian or Russian-owned businesses right now,” said Andy Hall, art collector and philanthropist.
“Russia is so centralized and repressed that anyone who is part of the economic and cultural elite of this country is, in a way, an accomplice of the current regime,” added Hall, who likened the situation to companies based in Germany. Nazi and boycotts. which sought to freeze companies controlled by apartheid-era South Africa.
Friedland and Strunin – who face no sanctions – list their addresses on Companies House at the Berkeley Square headquarters of Phillips, which was acquired in 2008 by their Russian luxury goods company, Mercury Group.
The 226-year-old auction house ranks behind Sotheby’s and Christie’s as one of the leading international players in the industry, and now bills itself as ‘the most dynamic and forward-thinking auction house in the world with breakthroughs in new markets such as non-fungible tokens (NFTs). He stood alongside Chelsea as one of the crown jewels of Russian investment in ‘Londongrad’. As with the soccer club, critics like Hall believe Phillips’ ties to Russia should now be severed.
Besides its owners – known in the art world as “the two Leonids” – the other most visible Russian in the British art world is Peter Aven, a UK-based oligarch who left a conglomerate of London-based investment and a prestigious Royal Academy position after he and other oligarchs were hit with EU sanctions.
In the UK, where Aven has a home in Surrey, he has already been happy to speak and showcase a range of treasured artistic assets.
On 8.5 acres of green lawns, they include outdoor sculptures such as the reclining figure by Henry Moore, bought for £19 million, the seated couple by Lynn Chadwick, a spider sculpture by Louise Bourgeois and a special order by Antony Gormley. In an interview with the Financial Times in 2017, Aven identified his favorite piece as Les Maisonettes Rouges by Marc Chagall, bought for a record £3.3million.
“I have never bought a plane or a yacht. All my money goes into art,” he said.
While EU sanctions last month led to the French government seizing a yacht owned by fellow oligarch Igor Sechin, Aven’s work doesn’t appear to be in danger of being confiscated by the UK government – at least for now. .
But away from the top Russian billionaires, a chill wind of uncertainty is also being felt lower on the economic ladder by a much larger cohort of Russian art lovers in London, who have used a golden visa scheme now removed allowing wealthy overseas investors a fast track to living in the UK.
“Billionaires obviously came but then they brought a new wave, including those who worked with and for them – as well as others who came just because they could,” said a concerned Russian whose company is part of a network of advisors and restoration consultants. for the needs of compatriots in terms of schooling, property and culture.
“I don’t know if they’ll stay, to be honest, and that’s very worrying. People are taking note of the Tory MP who said everyone who is Russian should be fired and another who suggested that Russian deposits should be limited to £50,000.
They added: “Art collectors are rare in any group, but there could be a higher percentage among this group because they have the means, the time and also the interest and motivation. Some buy art, but many more go to exhibitions or become patrons – and that may be higher than your new normal London contribution – and they use it to culturally familiarize themselves here.
While many tended to have traditional tastes, the same source said it was particularly sad because sanctions on Russia and a crackdown on the movement of money meant it would end a growing trend to collect and preserve more recent Russian art and history.
“It’s overwhelming because it’s also a step towards a change in culture. Moscow literally came back to life, with new galleries and glimmers of hope. Now these new projects are frozen and nothing can be taken out of Russia. »
Stephen Brooks, CEO of Phillips, said earlier this month: “At Phillips, we unequivocally condemn the invasion of Ukraine. Like the rest of the art world, we have been shocked and saddened by the tragic events unfolding in the region. We call for an immediate cessation of all hostilities in the strongest possible terms. »
Watch company Lange and Peter Aven’s investment firm have both been approached for comment.