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The Contemporary Russian Soul

Sotheby’s takes the high-end art brands to a Moscow mall.

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When Alex Rotter was made the head of the New York office of Sotheby’s contemporary-art division in February, he inherited a business that needed to find new collectors to keep the prices of Damien Hirsts and Andy Warhols inflating. Which is why last month Rotter had 30 pieces shipped to the Barvikha Luxury Village outside Moscow to let the oligarchs get a firsthand look before the auction house’s contemporary sale May 14.

As Russia’s new high society tries to be taken seriously, its members are buying art along with other high-end brands that bespeak refined taste. “To be taken seriously into the art world as a buyer or collector, they want that,” notes Rotter. Nestled among pine trees beside a highway, Barvikha is the sort of place where this all-at-once, cash-and-carry coming up in the world can happen most conveniently. Gucci, Ralph Lauren, Armani, and Tiffany boutiques are complemented by the rest of the high-end lifestyle outfitters: Bugatti, Lamborghini, even Harley Davidson. Sotheby’s invited a carefully researched group of 500. “You had all of these limos parked outside, and you had these big bald guys standing there, very puffed up,” Rotter says. “Upstairs was a party, and the oligarchs and their girlfriends or wives—or girlfriends and wives.” Daria Zhukova, the much-photographed heiress and companion of billionaire Roman Abramovich, was there (a coup for Sotheby’s). He already owns a British soccer club and is currently building the most expensive home in the U.K. A collection of de Koonings and Hirsts could earn him a new level of respect.

“Growing up in Austria, I know the Eastern European soul,” says Rotter. “America was always the holy land; they’ve wanted to be a part of it.” One of the most-asked-about works was Warhol’s 1986 Statue of Liberty, printed in red, white, and blue camouflage.

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