Royal jewels shine at Russia sale, paintings flop

LONDON (Reuters) - Rediscovered royal treasures from Russia broke records at a London auction on Monday, but a separate sale of paintings fell well short of estimates.

The Sotheby’s auctions pointed to ongoing uncertainty in a market that has grown virtually from nothing in the last 15 years as newly wealthy Russians and former Soviet tycoons sought to buy back art taken out of the region after the revolution. The sales also underlined the importance of provenance, with imperial links apparently the most desirable of all.

The so-called “Romanov Heirlooms,” which had been lost to posterity for over 90 years before they were discovered in Sweden in 2009, fetched 7.1 million pounds ($11.8 million), around seven times expectations.

U.S. buyers outnumbered those from the former Soviet bloc when it came to the very top lots.

“It is very unusual, because most of the Russian sales are dominated by Russian buyers,” said Jo Vickery, Sotheby’s senior director. “This was a very different sale and very global -- people were buying a piece of history.”

Less impressive was the evening sale of Russian paintings, which raised 4.1 million pounds ($6.8 million) well short of expectations of between 7.8 and 11.1 million pounds.

“The (paintings) sale was definitely challenging in parts,” Vickery said. “There is still a lot to learn about this market in the current environment.”

She said Sotheby’s had seen interest from potential buyers after the auction, and that despite the disappointing sale the auctioneer was on course to meet its overall target for “Russian Week” in London.

“The longer-range perspective is that there is much more confidence around than six months ago in the market,” Vickery added, referring to recent weakness in values for Russian art, reflecting broader economic woes.

At the Romanov Heirloom sale, every lot was sold, and all but one went for more than their pre-sale high estimates.

An auction record for a Faberge cigarette case was set when an imperial jeweled, four-color gold example went to a private U.S. buyer for 612,000 pounds ($1 million) including premium, nearly six times its pre-sale estimate.

Several other cases smashed the previous auction record of 433,600 pounds set in 2006, including a jeweled, three-color gold work that fetched 601,000 ($999,000) and also went to a bidder from the United States. The objects on sale originally belonged to Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna and her late husband Grand Duke Vladimir, brother of Czar Alexander III.

After the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, the duchess fled Russia and organized for her treasures to be collected. They were deposited at the Swedish Legation in St. Petersburg in two pillow cases.

Editing by Paul Casciato