December 2021

The Best of ELLE DECORATION: collector Petr Aven's apartment in Moscow

collector Petr Aven's apartment in Moscow
Banker Petr Aven needs no introduction, and his collection of Russian art has long earned him the fame of a true connoisseur. Over 25 years, his collection has become a model for many collectors who have embarked on this difficult path.
ELLE DECORATION: I can't help but ask: how did your collection start?

PETR AVEN: The first painting in the collection was a still life by Pavel Kuznetsov from the 1920s. I bought it in 1993 for $5,000. This was the first serious piece I wanted to buy: some close friends of mine had works by Kuznetsov in their house, and I always really liked this artist. When I started earning money, I immediately decided that I would collect paintings. I'd had this idea since my early youth. It was relatively clear to me that I would be creating a museum collection of pre-revolutionary Russian painting, from Mir Iskusstva [“World of Art”, a Russian magazine and the artistic movement inspired and embodied by it – Ed.] to the avant-garde. Now this idea seems banal, but at that time Larionov, Goncharova and Lentulov were much less known than they are now. In the USSR, they were barely spoken of.
Some family friends had a collection of paintings at home. And I was sorry that we didn't have any.
Is this the first work you acquired? You weren’t hunting or buying any paintings as antiques?

No. When I met the guys from Alfa Bank, they already had the Alfa-Art auction. And the first work they offered me was this still life by Kuznetsov. I still have it in the collection.
Portrait of a Man in an Orange Blouse (Portrait of Vengerov) by Valentina Khodasevich, 1910
Portrait of a Man in an Orange Blouse
Did the collection originate as a status symbol? Or does this idea come from your childhood?

From early childhood, of course. I always liked to collect and organise things. I was serious about collecting stamps and model cars. Nowadays I can't tell one car from another. At that time, I knew every single car model that was produced in the world. Then I collected model airplanes and also knew all the planes — both military and civil aircraft. After finishing school, I sold them all. I wanted something more serious. Some family friends had a collection of paintings at home. And I was sorry that we didn't have any.

I read an interview of yours where you said that you approach the collecting process very seriously and rationally.

Very seriously indeed! However, the system I applied was based on combining the emotional and the rational. I was not guided by reason alone. I understood very well what I needed, and I didn't just buy whatever came my way. I rarely acquire works that I don't like, but sometimes it's necessary for the collection. I even bought paintings by artists who are not to my taste, for example Roerich, because a collection of Russian paintings cannot do without Roerich. Though I didn’t buy any of his outstanding, canonical works. But I have one of his best artworks — Conquest of Kazan.

Was it easy to collect works of art at that time? What are the opportunities in this field today? I'm not referring here to the financial side of things, but to the availability of the works.

It’s no longer possible to assemble an outstanding collection of Russian painting. Everything that was kept in family collections, everything that the Bolsheviks didn’t show, the entire “domestic” avant-garde poured onto the market en masse in the 1990s. Financial need and social upheavals forced people to sell their acquisitions, and all this has already settled in several large collections. And now, it's not an exaggeration to say that it’s impossible to create a collection comparable to mine.

The last serious collection was Alexander Smuzikov’s, it’s an avant-garde collection. You need to look for a different niche: for example, post-war Soviet painting. Ananyev's museum has gathered a brilliant collection of realist art; they also managed to do this in time. You can buy works from the 1960s and 1970s, it’s still possible to stumble upon them. I don’t know of any fundamental collection of Soviet graphics, and as for post-war ones, I have not encountered a single collection of this kind. There were collectors of pre-war graphics; I also have a small collection of Soviet graphics.
From a certain point in time, I knew about everything that was on the art market.
Pyotr Aven's cabinet. Photo by Mikhail Loskutov
Peter Aven's cabinet. Photo by Mikhail Loskutov
Have you made any mistakes?

There have been mistakes. I’ve bought two forged works in my life, both are now hanging in my country house. I kept them as a tribute to my stupidity. One piece was allegedly by Petrov-Vodkin, and the second was supposed to be by Nathan Altman. I also once bought a fake Serebryakova, but I managed to return it.

The sellers happened to be decent people and they themselves came to me saying that they had been mistaken and that the work was not authentic, although they had received all the expert reports. I don't think there were any other forged works. It's just that I was careful with every purchase and never paid more than a hundred thousand dollars for a piece if the provenance was not 100% clear at all examinations.

How do you understand that an artwork is genuine? You're not an art critic. You’ve built up expertise during this period, which is very important. But what was the situation like at the very beginning?

I've always had good taste, an understanding of colour. I knew what should be worn where and what to combine it with, and gave advice to my girlfriends. I think I have an innate visual talent. So there were no fundamental aesthetic errors. When you start spending money, you quickly develop expertise.

But there has always been a problem with forged artworks.

There are fewer fakes now, but there have always been a lot of them. I have never spent a lot of money on any questionable pieces. There isn’t a single established museum in the world that would buy works by great artists without provenance. These stories about grannies, granddads or mysterious collectors are pure legends. I followed a simple rule: buy inexpensive things — unlike expensive ones, they are less likely to be forged. I was offered fakes many times, but I could easily figure this out. After all, at some point you begin to see.

For example, one of the most famous French families (I won't even mention the last name, because everyone knows it) has an essential collection of Picasso, Braque and Western modernism. The owner said he had some Russian works that he was ready to sell. All seven pieces that he offered were fake — there were works by Goncharova, Larionov, Puni, Exter. He had bought them in Paris. I wrote to him about it, and, as far as I understand, he threw them away.

Now, what about your victories or extraordinary finds?

I’ve won a few races for artworks. I was competing with other collectors. There have been seven or eight works in my life that I could have bought but got away from me. Of course, I remember this and keep track of them.

Once [Russian businessman and philanthropist] Vyacheslav Kantor beat me to it by buying The Rape of Europa by Valentin Serov. In this race, he was one step ahead of me from the beginning. But still, it's a pity that I didn't succeed. He beat me to something else, too. There are a few pieces that I haven’t bought but still need. I don’t know exactly where they are, but they must belong to a well-known collection owned by a wealthy person who doesn’t exhibit them and who, as far as I understand, doesn’t really need them. In theory I understand how I can find them, and I think I might buy them.
My collection of contemporary Russian art did not meet expectations.
Are you like a hunter lying in wait?

Sure. I remember all these things by heart. From a certain point in time, I knew about everything that was on the market in theory: about all the families that at some point would start to sell. I still know this. The old private collections still exist. For example, there is still one big old collection in St. Petersburg. I go to them and look at the works. We'll see if I manage to acquire this collection over time.

Are there any stories related to accidental finds?

I haven’t had any totally random finds. But there have been a few sudden discoveries: for example, the now deceased mother of my classmate called and said that she had a Falk that had been hanging at their home since 1931. This was a gift from Falk to Neuhaus. And of course, you can’t put a price on coming into a house and seeing an artwork that no one has ever seen… This was Falk's Houses at Sunset from 1911. Of course, unexpected things happen.

But the basis of my collection, the most valuable works, has still come from Sotheby's and Christie's auctions, including through private sale. The second major source of my collection is the largest collection in the West: the Wildenstein collection. This collection of Larionov and Goncharova was the best private one in the world. I also include a number of Russian collections among my sources: above all, Alexei Stychkin's collection, which provided me with two paintings by Korovin, among other things. I am very, very grateful to him. Then I bought a series of works from Alex Lachman, a well-known dealer and collector. And I’m very grateful to him too.
Peter Aven's collection. Photo by Mikhail Loskutov
Peter Aven's collection. Photo by Mikhail Loskutov
Are you still an active collector now, or just a respectable collection owner?

I’ve basically bought everything I wanted for my Russian collection. I had the idea to create a museum collection, so that each artist in their genre would be represented by their best works. There’s barely anything that interests me on the market, these things very rarely pop up at auctions.

The last work I spent a long time hunting for was the essential Portrait of a Woman by Jawlensky, which I bought last year. This is one of the best portraits by this artist. With this purchase, I probably crossed off the last item on the list of what I wanted to buy. However, I also have a collection of Soviet porcelain. And there are a few things in this area that I really need. I have other collections too, and I also know what I want to add to them. I am generally very aware of what I want.

So actually you just can’t stop?

Well, of course, I buy something all the time. At the moment, I’m focusing on contemporary art. I buy relatively inexpensive things, I’ve completely changed my strategy. And I buy works by inexpensive European artists who, in my opinion, may become really big in around 20 years.
I haven’t had any totally random finds. But there have been a few sudden discoveries.
Do you buy them as an investor or as a collector?

As a collector, because I like them. It's just a completely different world — there’s such a vast number of works. The British Royal Academy of Arts has a fantastic school, where the most talented young people study. You can go to their studio and buy their works. Plus there are academics, who are mostly younger than me and who also let me into their studios. You can buy a piece there, which will cost not millions, but tens or, at worst, hundreds of thousands of dollars, but this is great art, art for the future.

In this regard, are you acting like [great Russian collectors] Shchukin and Morozov did a hundred years ago?

Yes, probably.

You said that you didn’t see them as benchmarks.

In terms of old art, I didn't, because I was collecting things that have already received recognition in the world one way or another, and Shchukin was purchasing works by new names. That's what I'm doing now with contemporary art. I haven’t yet started forming a systematic collection, but perhaps i might yet do that.

Do you struggle with yourself, for example, when you see a piece that you don't like, while understanding its value as a collector?

I never buy something I don't like. With contemporary art, I buy only what I like.

What about Russian contemporary art?

I had a discussion with [Russian pop artist Vladimir] Dubosarsky, you all know that. Unfortunately, it so happened that there was no art here that would be really interesting. I have a large collection of contemporary Russian art, located in Italy. And it’s a collection that didn’t live up to my expectations.

Has it discredited itself? Was it overrated?

Yes. I don't want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but things that have sold for tens of thousands of dollars here are five times cheaper in Europe. Once again, Vinogradov and Dubosarsky generated a lot of advertising for themselves, among other things by parasitizing great Russian art. And, unfortunately, this concept hasn’t yet taken off.
Ladies in a Boat by Victor Borisov-Musatov, 1890
Ladies in a Boat by Victor Borisov-Musatov, 1890
If we speak about Russian art in general and the Russian avant-garde, the art of the 1920s and 30s and Soviet art — how does it find itself in a modern context?

The Russian avant-garde was a complete breakthrough. From the point of view of the school, this is the only real contribution Russian painting made to world art. Kandinsky and Jawlensky are another important phenomenon, though no one considers them Russian artists. At the same time, Kandinsky is inseparable from Russian painting, unlike, for example, Soutine, who isn’t a Russian artist at all. But apart from that, there were no other original things. There were individual artists, who didn’t belong to any school and aren’t well known to anyone. I think Petrov-Vodkin is another great artist who’s not really known at all in the world. But these are individual names. And in terms of a contribution to history — it’s only the avant-garde.

As for contemporary Russian painters — was it that they had the potential but never reached the international level?

They somehow failed. It's such a generational thing… By the way, I really like Koshlyakov. I consider him an underrated artist of my generation. And he's the only one who made up his mind, went to France and is now trying to become an international artist... but it's difficult because he's alone. Generally speaking, though, it clearly didn't really work out for anyone.
The avant-garde is the only contribution Russian painting made to world art.
And the avant-garde? Can it become as much a part of the world art market as, for example, the masters of the past?

It has already become that. It hasn’t fallen in price, and in terms of interest, the avant-garde is at its very peak. I think Russian expressionism also has the potential for significant growth. In 2015, there was an exhibition at the Neue Galerie in New York, which I provided half of the works for, with Ronald S. Lauder providing the other half. We brought Russian and German expressionism together: Larionov, Goncharova, Lentulov, Kuprin and Kirchner, artists from the two groups, the Brücke (Bridge) and Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider). It was clear that these were artists of the same level, but Kirchner is significantly more expensive. That’s how it is for now. Now there will be large Goncharova exhibitions at the Tate and then in Russia.

Goncharova is actually the most expensive female artist. She’s even more expensive than Frida Kahlo. I agreed to support the exhibition at the Tate, which is very natural for me as a Goncharova collector, and I think prices are going to rise even more. The same applies to Larionov. Russian expressionism has great potential for growth. There are individual artists who can still grow in value on the world art scene.

Could your collection become an institution?

I'm thinking about it. There is a model — the aforementioned Neue Galerie by Ronald S. Lauder. Perhaps I’ll create two museums: one in Moscow, the other in London. My collection will be located on the ground floor, and exhibitions will be held on the first floor. There will be two museums of Russian art, which will work in parallel and exchange works and exhibitions — this is what I’ll probably start working on in the near future. But now there’s so much hassle with the import and export of artworks… It's hard both here and in England.

What do you think, who’s making the moves right now when it comes to promoting Russian art?

Enthusiastic gallerists such as Elena Selina and Vladimir Ovcharenko are doing a lot in terms of promotion. It seems to me that now the problem lies with the artists themselves, and not with anything else. It’s about their desire to study, work, go away for a while and actively mingle with the art world, to get into the Royal Academy, where Russians do not come to study. One example is Eddie Peake, who graduated from the Royal Academy seven years ago.

I bought two of his works for £20,000. Now there’s going to be a huge exhibition of his art at White Cube, after which his works will cost not £20,000, but £100,000, and then £300,000, and so on. And everyone says he's going to be like Andy Warhol. But our students aren’t there. Everyone’s sitting here, painting, living in their own world. But writing your own biography is a real struggle. It seems to me that the problem is different than what Dubosarsky identified as such — saying that collectors are to blame or someone else is to blame. Unfortunately, they themselves are to blame.

What about the cultural authority of our state?

We have outstanding museums now. The Tretyakov Gallery is becoming a distinguished museum before our eyes, again thanks to [its director] Zelfira Tregulova. Both Zelfira Tregulova and [Hermitage director] Mikhail Piotrovsky have a very high status. And the Pushkin Museum is at a very high level, too. In our country, the museum still has great power as a cultural institution.

What about the state itself, not the museums?

I believe that the freer a person is, the better. There are more and more draconian laws being passed that are restricting the import and export of artworks, which I am trying to fight. I bought a lot of paintings in the West and brought them here, and now they cannot be taken out. This is pure idiocy. I stand for free exchange, this way it would be easier to take artworks out of the country, bring them in and exhibit art. But in general, our state museums remain outposts of culture, and little has changed in this regard.
Peter Aven's collection. Photo by Mikhail Loskutov
Peter Aven's collection. Photo by Mikhail Loskutov
A glossy magazine kind of question: what are three of your favourite works?

I don’t have any favourites.

Well, what if you were told that you could only take three artworks with you?

It would probably depend largely on the situation. You always get captivated by your latest acquisitions, this is only natural. My newer trophies include a Jawlensky; I also got an essential work by Chagall, Red House, which I bought at a Sotheby's auction, competing, as it later turned out, with my partner German Khan. The two of us fought together, pushing up the price. If I’d known that it was him who was trying to buy the piece and he had known that it was me, it would all have gone differently.

It cost me quite a bit, but it's a great work, in my opinion, and a very important one. I have the best of the existing pieces by Larionov. And if I were to choose something in particular, I would keep what makes the collection what it is: Larionov, Goncharova and Lentulov. I have the work Victory Battle hanging on the wall behind me — it is one of the most important pieces by Lentulov, I bought it from the artist's great-grandson. The owners called, but while I was on the way, another customer got there first. The owners announced the price, which was high, but reasonable.

The first customer told them they were almost certain about buying it. I told them that while he was only “almost certain”, I was going to bring them the money in half an hour. Luckily, I have a bank. The first buyers came in the evening, but the painting was no longer there. I was just like Kantor who bought The Rape of Europa by rushing in with the money a few hours before me. I was also “thinking” at that time. Collecting is unquestionably a fight.
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