Russians bring home the Bacon

When, exactly, did Russia become the new superpower of the art market? Was it earlier this month, when Roman Abramovich spent £60 million on two paintings by Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud? Was it in 2004, when Victor Vekselberg, a Ukrainian oil and aluminum magnate, acquired the entire Forbes collection of gold-and-jewel-encrusted imperial Fabergé eggs? Did the turning point come last September when Sotheby's called off the sale of the £20 million art collection amassed by the late cellist Mstislav Rostropovich after the Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov bought the lot?

Or was it, more subtly, the moment last May when Christie's auction house in New York quietly added Russian roubles to the list of currencies displayed during bidding? The Russian billionaire now bestrides the art world just as the American tycoon did a century ago, with limitless resources and limited taste, provoking precisely the same combination of awe, envy, snobbery and quiet admiration.

Two years ago Russian buyers accounted for just 3 per cent of Impressionist artworks sold at auction. Today, some 40 per cent are bought by Russians. Last year Sotheby's sold $180 million worth of Russian art, a 22-fold increase since 2000.

The new Russian collector emerges from an economy that has grown for nine years in succession; his fortune is made from commodities and energy resources, largely immune to the credit crunch; the weak dollar has further fuelled his buying spree. He is determined, showy and, in some eyes, irredeemably vulgar.

For many in the art world, the new-minted tycoons buying up Picassos by the yard are merely monied barbarians, accumulating art as “the latest fashion accessory”. Reporting on the opening of the Moscow Fine Art Fair this week, one British newspaper described with ill-concealed disgust the nouveau-riche Russian art buyers, with “their trophy wives, draped in diamonds and Gucci, tottering dutifully by their sides”. The same disdain accompanied Mr Abramovich's purchase of Bacon's Triptych, 1976 and Freud's Benefits Supervisor Sleeping. Along with three yachts, two submarines and Chelsea Football Club, Abramovich has also recently acquired a new girlfriend, Daria “Dasha” Zhukova, who is believed to be interested in opening an art gallery in Moscow. With a sniff audible in Moscow, British newspapers described Zhukova as the 25-year-old socialite daughter of a former cinema projectionist with an interest in homoeopathy: not exactly Peggy Guggenheim, then.

Yet precisely the same air of bemused condescension was once aimed at the newly rich American magnates whose art-buying more than a century ago formed the basis for some of the greatest art collections in the world: Frick, Mellon, Rockefeller, Harriman.

John Pierpont Morgan's eclectic collecting was derided at the time, his spending on art comparable to “a tipsy dowager with unlimited credit moving down Fifth Avenue on a riotous shopping trip”. New money from the New World struck fear into the cultural avatars of the Old World, who saw the American collectors as asset-strippers, steadily hoarding the stock of treasured things. In his 1911 novel The Outcry, Henry James created the fictional Breckenridge Bender, an American millionaire buying up Britain's art treasures with a large cheque book and little discrimination.

A century ago the artistic aspirations and extravagances of the newly rich Americans were mocked just as mercilessly as the Russian oligarchs at the Moscow art fair buying up diamond-encrusted gambling chips made from an 800,000-year-old meteorite.

Yet the power-shift in the art world towards Russia is really only the latest evidence that great wealth is ineluctably drawn to great art as its ultimate adornment. Buying a football team confers one sort of cachet, but the possession and collection of art is the ultimate validation for the self-made magnate.

Of nowhere is this more true than Russia, where the traditions of art collection run deep. Catherine the Great made collecting art fashionable in the 18th century and founded the great Hermitage collection; the aristocracy, and then the merchant classes, followed suit. It was another Abramovich, Ivan Abramovich Morosov, who, with his fellow textile merchant Sergei Shchukin, amassed Russia's unrivalled collections of French Impressionist and early modern French painting before 1914.

The revolution forced many aristocrats to flee with their collections. Soviet restrictions on art that was not state sanctioned effectively suppressed the Russian collecting urge. Much non-approved art was smuggled out of the country and into American and European collections, while the Soviet regime sold off art to raise hard currency.

Some of the new breed of Russian art buyers, such as Vekselberg, seem impelled by a desire to repatriate Russia's artistic heritage. But whether driven by artistic patriotism, mere acquisitiveness, financial acumen or exhibitionism, the new Russian collectors are doing a service to art. By putting their money on the wall, they are once again demonstrating that art has the power to transcend time, taste and economic cycles. In the end it is more important than yachts, or investments, or even football.

Whereas Chelsea Football Club is unlikely to be donated to the public any time soon, there is a strong likelihood that Abramovich's Bacon and Freud - respectively, the most expensive postwar work of art ever sold at auction and the most expensive work by a living artist - will eventually be put on display. For what is the point of bling unless you show it? The art market may be nervous, but Russian contemporary art is booming, Russia is amassing great art once again and the emergence of a new superpower with a big bidding paddle is revitalising the art world, as it has done repeatedly through history.

Today we sneer, enviously, at the nouveau-riche tycoon bringing home the Bacon, but one day we will visit the Abramovich (or perhaps, depending on how things progress romantically, the Daria Zhukova gallery) in Moscow, just as we visit the Tate in London or the Frick in New York, and wonder at the strange industrial and financial process that turns filthy lucre for one into beauty for many.

Ben Macintyre