Vastari Interview: Miracles Don’t Happen When It Comes to Buying Russian Art


Aliya Sayakhova, London

I meet James Butterwick, one of the most prominent Western dealers in Russian Art, at his gallery in Ravenscourt Park amidst the so-called “Russian Art Week” –  the third week of November when a wide range of Russian Art-related events are offered in and around Mayfair.  The elegant grey walls of the  brightly lit gallery space are attached to James’s family house, and he very cordially gives me a tour of his beautifully arranged art collection as we make our way from the private rooms into the gallery premises.

The gallery houses some very fine examples of the Russian avant-garde, including works by the record-breakers Natalya Goncharova, Mikhail Larionov and Boris Grigoriev, however Mr Butterwick is extremely excited about his most recent acquisition: a large canvas by a prominent master of the Soviet Nonconformist art Oleg Vassiliev.

Aliya Sayakhova: James, you are well-known in the art world, primarily as a dealer and collector specialising in Russian Art of 1890–1920. Are you now shifting your interest towards later periods, and what explains such a move?

James Butterwick: First of all, this period is still very cheap (even though I did pay a monstrous amount for this particular Vassliev). But the main reason is, of course, availability. I can’t buy great Russian art of the beginning of the 20th century for less than several million, and quite often you don’t get a picture which is good enough even for that kind of money. Everyone is chasing it, and it has become very, very difficult.

So it’s much better, in my opinion, to now look at different periods.  A great Goncharova is going to cost you about 5,5 million pounds, maybe even more, and a lot of people are going to be after it.  You can find Larionov at auctions but none of them are great pictures – they are good pictures, but not great. And I like to sell great pictures, exciting pictures, unusual pictures. So that’s why I am now starting to look at the Non-conformists, where you can still find great artworks for relatively reasonable amounts of money.

AS: Another option, of course, would be selling works on paper instead of oils, which I think you are already doing quite extensively.

JB: I’ve always done that, because I always liked works on paper. I usually set a limit of around £200-300,000 when I buy art, and this sum can buy you a sensational work on paper. There is more availability of works on paper than there is of oils, that’s why I am interested in them.

AS: This sounds very similar to what is happening today on the Impressionist market where it is almost impossible to get a good picture.

JB: Exactly the same. The more I am on the market, the less great pictures I am seeing, which means that the supply is running out. This is why non-conformists seem to be a very good buy – and some of them are very good artists.

AS: You say it’s a very good buy, but what about the demand?

JB: The demand is not particularly strong at the moment. However a couple of years ago we saw how the Red Flag by Komar and Melamid that was recently exhibited at the Saatchi Gallery went for half a million dollars at auction. That shows how strong prices can be.

AS: Historically dealers and auction houses have been mortal enemies. However this is certainly not true in your case as the new James Butterwick gallery was officially inaugurated last year by Sotheby’s chairman Mark Poltimore.

JB: First of all, I really like the people who work at Sotheby’s. How can you not like Mark Poltimore?! He is such a charming person and he is a consummate professional. The entire team is very lovely, and in my opinion they are the best Russian department in the entire Russian Art world. They take the most care with authenticating objects. They are the benchmark.

And furthermore, I don’t have any enemies in this world: maybe there are 2 or 3 people who don’t particularly like me.

AS:  Authenticity of artworks is the subject of your specific interest. You lecture a lot about fakes on the Russian Art market, and you were particularly outraged by the recent scandal regarding the new Goncharova catalogues by Andrew Parton and Denise Bazetoux which presumably contain around 150 “newly-discovered” Goncharovas. 

How do you manage to sell anything at all when you constantly raise the issue of the huge amount of fakes on the Russian art market?

JB: I only sell works  that have impeccable provenance, and I always say that ‘miracles don’t happen’:  crystal-clear provenance is the sole way to stay away from dubious works and avoid disappointment in the future.

Read the full article – Vastari