RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The global financial crisis may be pushing many countries and industries toward recession, but some sectors appear to be unharmed so far, like the international art market. One reason is the appearance of new buyers from countries like Russia which is seeing a boom in contemporary art, at least for now. NPR's Gregory Feifer reports from Moscow.
GREGORY FEIFER: Lehman Brothers may have filed for bankruptcy last month, but when British artist Damien Hirst held a Sotheby's auction the same day, he astounded the art world by raising almost a hundred million dollars. A third of the buyers of such items as pickled animals and a diamond-encrusted filing cabinet were believed to be from the former Soviet Union. Inside Sotheby's Moscow office in a swank building near the Kremlin, Director Mikhail Kamenskii says wealthy Russians used to shelling out for expensive cars and houses are now plunging into the art market.
Mr. MIKHAIL KAMENSKII (Director, Sotheby's Moscow Office): It's coming back as a new fashion, as a new tradition to buy luxury goods, but in the field of art, to create a trend, to invest a lot, not only in art, but in this lifestyle.
FEIFER: Billionaire Oligarch Ramon Abramovich is setting the example. The owner of Britain's Chelsea Football Club recently bought a Lucian Freud painting for $33 million and a three-panel work by Francis Bacon for $86 million. The driving force behind Abramovich's new taste for art is his new girlfriend, 27-year-old socialite Daria Zhukova.
Ms. DARIA ZHUKOVA: (Russian spoken)
FEIFER: At a glitzy event last month, Zhukova, a former model and the daughter of a billionaire, launched Moscow's newest contemporary art gallery called Garage. Garage is a former garage, a massive avant-garde Soviet bus depot from the 1920s. Inside the cavernous refurbished structure, visitors peruse the gallery's first exhibit of works by Ilya Kabakov, Russia's best-known living artist whose paintings play on nostalgic images from old socialist realist art. Marat Guelman, a top Moscow gallery owner, says the publicity is driving a new appreciation for contemporary art.
Mr. MARAT GUELMAN (Owner, The Marat Guelman Gallery Moscow): (Through Translator) Kabakov is well-known abroad, but most Russian collectors don't understand him. The new exhibit means they won't be able to avoid trying.
FEIFER: Guelman says that after 70 years of communism, when collecting art was almost unheard of, many would-be oligarchs have a lot of bare walls to fill. But Guelman says although Russia already has some highly knowledgeable collectors, most will continue to buy only Russian art because they are unsure of their own tastes.
Mr. GUELMAN: (Through Translator) French collectors, for example, are delighted to discover new artists. But Russians tend to buy expensive pictures by big names they learned about in grade school.
FEIFER: No one is sure how the financial crisis will affect the art market. Abramovich is believed to have lost many billions of dollars. But Sotheby's Mikhail Kamenskii says huge risks on the stock market make art more attractive as a safe haven for investors.
Mr. KAMENSKII: Those who are out of the market, they will be replaced, I hope, by the new buyers who made the right decision before the crisis came, and now they have a lot of cash, and they have to invest.
FEIFER: The future may become clear next month at Sotheby's next big auction where organizers are hoping a 1916 painting by a Russian artist, Kazimir Malevich, will go for up to $60 million. Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow.