Until recently, market experts say, the Russians were primarily interested in the decorative arts. In 2004, for instance, the Russian billionaire Victor Vekselberg spent $100 million for the entire Forbes family Fabergé collection.
Then about five years ago, some of those Russian collectors widened their sights to mostly Russian-born artists, like Chagall. Since then, the tide has turned, said Joachim Pissarro, a great-grandson of Camille Pissarro and an adjunct curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “Now they’re going outside of Russia, buying artists like Jeff Koons,” he said. “The pendulum has swung 180 degrees, with Russians becoming one of the most powerful forces in the market.”
Many of the newly rich Russians, including Abramovich the oil tycoon and his girlfriend Zhukova, now make their homes in London. The Russians generally do not support British cultural institutions and seldom attend gallery openings or auction house parties, but Zhukova is different. She has agreed to be a co-host at the Serpentine Gallery’s fund-raiser next month, and she is keenly interested in meeting artists.
Zhukova who opens a 92,000 square foot contemporary art space this September acknowledges being a relative art neophyte. “I didn’t study art history and don’t remember names of artists,” she said. “But if I like an image, I remember it.” Overnight, Zhukova’s new center and her connections, including a billionaire art-collecting boyfriend, have made her an art-world It Girl. Her fame at the age of 27 attests to the seismic effect that Russian money – in some cases Ukrainian or Georgian money – is having.
Zhukova is the daughter of Alexander Zhukov, a deputy prime minister who made his fortune in oil. Roman Abramovich has riveted the art world recently by paying top dollar for works by Francis Bacon, Giacometti and others. (Forbes magazine estimated his net worth at $23.5 billion this year, putting him among the world’s 50 wealthiest figures.) An oil tycoon turned investor who owns the Chelsea soccer team in Britain, the 41-year-old Abramovich is also a friend of the Kremlin. He recently stepped down as governor of Chukotka, an impoverished region in the Russian Far East that he successfully helped to revive through his vast wealth.
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