A day after the horrific bombing of a Ukrainian maternity hospital, visitors to the Mayfair offices of the Russian-owned auction house Phillips could not help but wonder if an event preview seemed subdued.
“It did feel quiet,” said one attender at the preview, where viewers sipped espressos as vintage German-made Lange watches, labelled with six-figure prices in dollars and Swiss francs, lay behind display cases for an exhibition next month.
The event – and forthcoming auctions – will also be a litmus test of feeling towards Phillips, which insists it is “business as usual” in the face of a boycott by respected figures in the art world.
Despite it donating £5.8m to the Ukrainian Red Cross Society from a recent auction in London, and its CEO condemning the Russian invasion, those calling for the company to be shunned argue that only a boycott will force its Russian business figures – such as its owners Leonid Friedland and Leonid Strunin – to put pressure on the Kremlin.
“They provided the donation but it’s really not back to business as usual, and I think buyers and consignors should take their business elsewhere. I don’t think that anyone should be dealing with Russian or Russian-owned companies at the moment,” said Andy Hall, an art collector and philanthropist.
“Russia is so centralised and repressed that anyone who is in the economic and cultural elite in that country is, in a way, complicit with the current regime,” he added, likening the situation to firms based in Nazi Germany and the boycotts that sought to freeze out South African-controlled businesses in the Apartheid era.
Friedland and Strunin, who are not subject to any sanctions, list their addresses on Companies House as the Berkeley Square headquarters of Phillips, which was acquired in 2008 by their Russian luxury goods company, Mercury Group.
The 226-year-old auction house ranks behind only Sotheby’s and Christie’s as one of the sector’s major international players, and now markets itself as “the world’s most dynamic and forward-thinking auction house”, with inroads in new markets such as non-fungible token (NFTs). It has stood alongside Chelsea as one of the jewels in the crown of Russian investments in “Londongrad”. As with the football club, critics such as Hall believe Phillips’ ties with Russia should now be severed.
Aside from its owners – referred to in the art world as “the two Leonids” – the other most visible Russian in the British art world is Peter Aven, a UK-based oligarch who stepped down from a London-based investment conglomerate and a prestigious Royal Academy position after he and other oligarchs were hit by EU sanctions.
In the UK, where Aven has a home in Surrey, he has previously been happy to speak about and showcase a range of valuable art assets.
On 8.5 acres of green lawns, they include open air sculptures such as Henry Moore’s Reclining Figure, bought for £19m, Lynn Chadwick’s Sitting Couple, a Louise Bourgeois spider sculpture, and a specially commissioned Antony Gormley. In a Financial Times interview in 2017, Aven identified his favourite piece as Les Maisonettes Rouges by Marc Chagall, bought for a recorded £3.3m.
“I never bought a plane or a yacht. All my money goes into art,” he said.
While last month’s EU sanctions led to the French government seizing a yacht belonging to another oligarch, Igor Sechin, Aven’s work does not appear to be at risk of being confiscated by the UK government – at least for now.
But away from high-profile billionaire Russians, a chill wind of uncertainty is also being felt lower down the economic ladder by a much larger cohort of Russian art lovers in London, who used a now-axed golden visa scheme allowing wealthy foreign investors a fast track to live in the UK.
“The billionaires obviously came but then they brought a next wave, including those who worked with and for them – as well as others who came simply because they could,” said one concerned Russian whose business is part of a network of advisories and consultancies catering for compatriots’ needs on schooling, property and culture.
“I have no idea if they will stay, to be honest, and it is very worrying. People take note of the Conservative MP who said that everyone who is Russian should be sent back and another who suggested Russian deposits should be limited to £50,000.”
They added: “The collectors of art are rare in any group but it might be a higher percentage among this group because they have the means, the time and also the interest and incentive. Some buy art but many others go to exhibitions or become patrons – and it’s maybe higher than your normal new London intake – and they use it to get acquainted culturally here.”
While many tended to have traditional tastes, the same source said it was particularly sad as sanctions on Russia, and the clampdown on the movement of money, would halt a growing trend towards collecting and preserving more recent Russian art and history.
“It’s upsetting because it’s a step towards changing the culture, too. Moscow was literally springing back to life, with new galleries and glimpses of hope. Now those new projects are frozen and nothing can be taken out of Russia.”
Stephen Brooks, the CEO of Phillips, said earlier this month: “We at Phillips unequivocally condemn the invasion of Ukraine. Along with the rest of the art world, we have been shocked and saddened by the tragic events unfolding in the region. We call for an immediate cessation of all hostilities in the strongest possible terms.”
The watch firm Lange and Peter Aven’s investment firm have been approached for comment.