Five years ago, when the Moscow World Fine Art Fair first came to Moscow, just a handful of exhibitors turned up at a pint-sized venue to display their work. None of it was for sale.
The latest version of the event opened on May 27 with more than 80 galleries jostling for space inside the Manezh, Moscow's most prestigious exhibition space, a stone's throw from the Kremlin.
"It's really, really spread its wings and it's looking good this year," says Sixtine Crutchfield, one of the organizers of the show. "We've become a part of the calendar in the month of May. Every year we've had about 50,000 visitors, come rain or shine. The proof of the pudding is that people keep coming back, and we get more people applying."
This year an entire floor of the exhibition is dedicated to jeweled items, including a set of casino chips carved out of meteorites from outer space and encrusted with diamonds and rubies. The leather-cased set -- there is only one -- will set the lucky buyer back $1 million.
But the real draw this year appears to be contemporary Russian art, which Russian buyers are snapping up faster than ever before.
"Of course, contemporary art is now the trend, and so we get a lot more applications from contemporary art galleries than we do from, say, 18th-century furniture [dealers]," Crutchfield says. "I think because [contemporary art] is something that's easier to buy, maybe. [For older works] you need to have a certain amount of knowledge, but if you're a contemporary art buyer, you can buy with your gut feeling, and so a lot of people now are investing in [contemporary] art."
Financial analysts might be warning of a global recession, but as last month's record-breaking auctions demonstrated, the art world appears to be unaffected by the crunch. First, Lucian Freud's "Benefits Supervisor Sleeping" sold for $33.6 million to a mystery buyer at Christie's in New York. It was the highest price ever paid for a work by a living artist.
Then, barely 24 hours later, Francis Bacon's "Triptych" (1976) sold for $86.3 million -- the most ever paid for one of his works -- this time at Sotheby's in New York.
A week later, it was revealed that the mystery buyer was Roman Abramovich, the Russian billionaire and owner of London's Chelsea soccer team.
Between them, Sotheby's and Christie's -- the world's top two auction houses -- sold $12.5 billion in artworks in 2007, amounting to an increase of more than 40 percent. And Crutchfield says sales to Russian buyers have soared from 3 percent last year to 37 percent this year.
Time To Shine
Now the focus is turning to contemporary Russian art, says Sergei Krepun. His XL Gallery in Moscow represents some of the biggest names in the contemporary Russian art scene. XL's exhibition space at the Fine Art Fair is showcasing a handful of works, including a video installation on a screen shaped like a pair of giant red sunglasses that blares out trance music, and a clock carved out of Styrofoam.
"It's a very interesting, and very underestimated art scene. It hasn't had enough presence in the international market, and in the museum sphere. So that is why our gallery's main concern is to promote contemporary Russian art internationally, and also in Russia as well," Krepun says. "There aren't as many contemporary artists here as there are, say, in London or New York."
XL represents two of Russia's most famous contemporary artists, Vladimir Dubosarsky and Aleksandr Vinogradov, who work as a duo, producing vast oil paintings in a disused warehouse on the outskirts of Moscow. Born in the early 1960s, they have been called the most promising artists of their generation and have permanent works on display at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and the Houston Museum of Art.
The pair met at the Moscow College of Art in the early 1980s where, Krepun says, they would have been taught the Soviet techniques of socialist realism.
"Their idea was to break with this tradition, but to use it at the same time. So they turned the very idea of socialist realist painting upside-down," Krepun says. "They used unimaginable subjects, painting them in a very traditional manner, like an orgy of collective farmers. They have overtones of classic Soviet paintings, which depicted the same subjects, but in a very official, serene, heroic way. They are reflecting the collective unconscious of Russians today: maybe that's why they are so popular."
But is it selling? Most definitely, Krepun says. At around 60,000 euros ($94,000) a piece, their work doesn't come cheap, but compared to contemporary art in Europe or the United States, it is still a bargain. Dubosarsky's and Vinogradov's works have been sold as far afield as Germany, Korea, and Japan, though much of it remains in Russia.
Four years ago, another Russian billionaire, oil magnate Viktor Vekselberg, bought the world's second-largest collection of Faberge eggs for an undisclosed sum, promising to return them to Russia for the benefit of the nation. The collection was valued at $90 million.
Is there a sense that Russians, like Veksleberg, want to buy their own homegrown art out of a sense of pride and patriotism?
"I don't know about feelings of pride and patriotism, but more and more rich people are turning their sights on collecting art, because it's an interesting way of spending your money, Krepun says. "It's more interesting than just traveling, or buying cars, or something. Some are buying, probably, to have art in their homes, but more and more of them are getting into this as serious collectors. In contemporary art, there's a growing number of buyers -- we have more and more of them every year."