“It is the end of a life spent officially as a ceramicist, making boring ashtrays and the like to keep within the law.” Thus did Soviet unofficial artist Igor Kopystyansky describe the personal impact of the July 1988 Sotheby’s auction in Moscow, where 12 works by him and his wife, Svetlana Kopystyanskaya, brought in a combined total of $338,246. The works included Kopystyansky’s Restored Painting No. 5 (1987), sold to British rocker Elton John for $75,592 – an incredible sum for an artist who up until that point was, as he described it in ARTNews, “absolutely unknown,” even in his native Lvov. Although it was not fully grasped at the time, the windfall on a painting by a “ceramicist from Lvov” was the beginning of a boom in Russian art that has spanned the past 20 years.
The historic Sotheby’s auction – the first of its kind in the Soviet Union – would have been unthinkable in the years before glasnost. Organized by Sotheby’s London with the sponsorship of the Soviet Ministry of Culture, the sale was largely devoted to contemporary Soviet art created outside official channels: what is referred to as “unofficial” or “nonconformist art.” Opened to great fanfare and conducted in British pounds sterling, the sale attracted some 2,000 people, including fashionably dressed collectors, curators, and dealers flown in from the U.S. and Europe. Sales totalled $3.4 million, with prices surpassing the wildest of expectations – some works sold for more than 15 times their starting price. The undisputed star of the event was Grisha Bruskin – an artist previously threatened by the KGB for showing his work to foreigners. Bruskin’s multi-panel painting Fundamental Lexicon (1986) sold for $416,000: the highest amount ever paid for the work of a living Soviet artist.
The sale’s extraordinary success meant that Kopystyansky, Bruskin, and their fellow unofficial artists could devote themselves full-time and “publicly” to the kind of art they had formerly done in the privacy of their homes or studios. The sale also marked the end of Soviet artists’ long-standing isolation from Western audiences and demonstrated there was a real market for Russian art – one that today, 20 years on, is the fourth highest-grossing sector of the art market. As Bruskin wrote in his recently published memoirs, Past Imperfect: 318 Episodes from the Life of a Russian Artist, “The West suddenly discovered that this far-off, incomprehensible northern country boasted, in addition to its bears and red commissars, a free and original art. Which was distinguished not only from profane socialist realism but also from contemporary European and American art. And that this art, like the art of the early Russian avant-garde, could enrich the cultural history of western civilization.”
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