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Russian Masterworks Go Under Hammer
June 2, 2008 19:44

Tales of Melpomene with Chekhovs inscription

Russian arts and literature of the 20th century has been enjoying close attention of the West in recent years, the antique masterpieces making high-interest lots at world’s foremost auctions. Thus, lately Bloomsbury Auctions New York has been lucky to benefit from the unique collection Masterworks of 20th Century Russian Literature and Illustration sold out with a bang on May 21.

The collection consisting of rare book editions, related illustrations, autographs and photos was encompassing a most tangled period of the country’s history from 1900 to 1950, with its extraordinary art, beginning with the 'Silver Age' through the Revolutionary and post Revolutionary epochs through to the Totalitarian regime under Stalin.


The sale catalogue reminds of some Russian arts curriculum: from compulsory Anton Chekhov and Leo Tolstoy, Anna Akhmatova and Aleksandr Blok, Andrei Belyi and Ivan Bunin to somewhat out-of-the-way Mikhail Kuzmin, “a modern gay icon”, as characterized by the Bloomsbury Auctions review.

Finally, the classics were justly evaluated: the auction hit, a presentation copy of Anton Chekhov’s very first book Skazki Melpomeny. Shest Razckazov [Tales of Melpomene. Six Short Stories] privately printed by the author in 1884 was estimated at $30,000 to $40,000 and ultimately sold for $64,000. If Antosha Chekhonte (the great playwright’s penname then) had only known that very figure when, just a graduate from medical school, the future classic was paying on credit to have this collection of stories published! The presentation copy is inscribed to Mariya Vladimirovna Kiseleva, a writer in whose home in Babkino Chekhov and his wife spent some summers.

The complete set of Sovermennye Zapiski [Russian Notes] , the most important of the Russian emigre literary journals, turned another sale hit. Issued in Paris, 1920-1940, all the 70 volumes with works by Benois, Remizov, “V. Sirin” (Vladimir Nabokov), Lifar, Teffi, Tsvetaeva, Bunin and other prominent figures of Russian emigrant literature went for $32,000.


However, it is Mikhail Kuzmin, who now proves to be the most commercially successful author judging by the auction results. His “coming out” works turned to be in great favour among modern collectors. In particular, Kuzmin’s Zanaveshennye kartinki [Curtained pictures], the only example of illustrated Soviet homoerotica was sold for $16,000. Actually, Kuzmin never intended the book for general public; copies were available to collectors of erotica directly from the author. It is noteworthy that the illustrator of Curtained pictures Vladimir Milashevskii later became a fruitful illustrator of children’s books.

French Symbolist poet Henri de Régnier’s Sem portretov [Seven Portraits]translated by Kuzmin was the last erotic book to be published under the Soviet regime. Illustrated by D. I. Mitrokhin under the influence of Aubrey Beardsley and Matisse, the edition was estimated at $800 – $1,200 but shot up to $9,500.

The first edition of Mikhail Kuzmin’s Krylya. Povest v trekh chastyakh [Wings. Story in Three Parts], Russia’s first openly gay classic by the ‘northern wilde’ was sold for $6000. Maxim Gorky said Kuzmin was “evidently a semi-literate who cannot write coherently and who is unfamiliar with the Russian language - and he presumably is the creator of a new culture!”

At the same time, Aleksandr Blok called the novel “marvelous” and publicly defended Kuzmin against the “guardians of journalistic morality.” Some critics have considered Krylya to be a milestone in the history of Western literature. The first officially registered gay organization in Russia was named Krylya after Kuzmin’s novel.

There were lots of other notable lots, such as inscribed works by Leo Tolstoy, Maxim Gorky, Anna Akhmatova, Aleksandr Blok, Konstantin Balmont, Andrei Belyi, Ivan Bunin, Ilya Erenberg, Kornei Chukovsky, Anatolyi Lunacharsky, Vsevolod Meyerhold, Evegenii Zamyatin and other outstanding men of letter.

Out of numerous original drawings and watercolors by such illustrious artists as Altman, Annenkov, Bilibin, Chekhonin, Goncharova, Grigoriev, Larionov, Narbut, Puni, Roerich, Soudeikin and Kiril Zdanevich, Flowers, 2 hand-colored lithographs by Sergei Chekhonin turned to be the most expensive, hitting the amount of $19,000, though estimated at $600 – $800.

Vera Ivanova


Tags: Russian art     

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