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Russian collectors, Dealers Boost Profile at Miami Art Fair

            While million-dollar Warhols were selling at Art Basel Miami Beach yesterday afternoon, a few miles away in Miami's design district, self-appointed ambassadors from Moscow's fledgling art scene savored a moment of hometown pride.

            Moscow art dealer and adviser Elena Kuprina stood in the shadow of a shiny aluminum hand saw that was as tall as a palm tree. The sculpture was the work of one of Kuprina's Russian artists. Though the air was muggy, and the giant saw was exhibited far from the epicenter of Miami's art fair, Kuprina was as proud as if it were a flag atop Everest.

            ''The process to support Russian art is restarting now,'' the 41-year-old Kuprina said. ``It's in the tradition from the end of the last century,'' referring to the wave of Russian art collectors in the late 19th and early 20th century.

            Alexander Esin, a new Moscow art collector and booster, stood nearby. He had commissioned the saw and had been buying Russian contemporary art for less than a year. ``I have nothing to do,'' said Esin, who said he had retired from work as a bankruptcy lawyer who liquidated banks and airplane companies. ``But I am having fun.''

            The art world is on notice that something is afoot in Russia. The recent auctions of Russian art in New York and London at Sotheby's and Christie's have shown steady growth. Sales tallied a record $227.1 million this year.

            `Quick Learners'

           Major dealers are courting newly rich Russians. Victoria Gelfand, a Belarus native with Gagosian Gallery in New York, regularly travels to Russian art fairs and has Russian clients for the gallery's big-ticket contemporary works.

            ''I see a huge potential because these guys are very quick learners and very smart people,'' she said, standing at the Gagosian booth at Art Basel Miami Beach. ``I think right now they are starting out with their own art because that's what they know. As they learn more, they are reaching out towards the West.''

            A group of Russian artists, collectors, curators and dealers have come to the largest U.S. art fair for the first time. They chain-smoke, ignoring the humidity, and four artists who call who themselves Bluesoup went to Key West on Wednesday for a little sightseeing.

            Like the sellers of luxury cigars and condominiums who exhibit at the Miami fair, they have come to capitalize on the Miami art fair phenomenon, aiming to raise the profile of art from their homeland. Some Moscow collectors and wealthy business people have sponsored an exhibition of 20 Russian artists. The idea for the show came from Nicolas Iljine, director of corporate development for the Guggenheim Museum.

            Junket for Journalists

            The exhibition, ``Modus R,'' is located in a loftlike space near the saw installation. Sponsors have taken precautions to ensure the show gets ink, hiring the same public-relations firm that handles some of the work for the main art fair and flying in 13 Russian journalists. The art in the show is not for sale.

            The exhibition is considered a first step, but even the curators don't have illusions of grandeur.

            ``We cannot say contemporary art is established in Russia, because it's not,'' said Olesya Turkina, a curator from the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, who helped organize the show. She said there are just a handful of worthwhile contemporary art galleries in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

            As for the artists at the show, Turkina hopes the Miami exhibit will give them sorely needed exposure. ``I have a dream that galleries will come and discover.''

            Homage to Malevich

            She showed off a sculpture by Andrei Molodkin, ``Malevich Black Square,'' a pair of 2006 acrylic squares filled with crude oil, an homage to the famous Russian artist Kasimir Malevich and to the source of much new Russian wealth. Imagery of tanks, diamonds and grim landscapes pepper the show.

            Some Russian art is for sale in Miami this week. For a second year, Moscow art gallery XL is exhibiting at the main fair. A plastic sculpture by Irina Korina of an oversized Nokia cell phone package, ``Top Model,'' is for sale at $12,000. Another version of the same piece is on view at ``Modus R.''

Russia has long been known as home to collectors of Russian avant-garde art as well as gilt French furniture. With the recent spurt of new Russian billionaires, curiosity has grown about whether some of this wealth is finding its way to the art market. Interest spiked last May when an anonymous bidder paid $95 million for a Picasso portrait and speculation in the art world suggested the buyer was Russian.

            In fact, emerging Russian art collectors appear to be a relatively small group. Kuprina estimates there are 30 to 40 active buyers on the international auction market. She attends auctions in London and New York buying for clients who made money in oil and construction.

            Small Circle

            Art watchers are quick to            out that the budding Russian art market -- both buying and selling -- is modest. Most of the new buyers stick to the auctions, needing the public validation that the work has monetary and aesthetic value.

            ``It is a very small circle'' said Karl Schweizer, a Basel- based managing director of UBS AG's art banking division. ``There are certain activities, but it's not yet the big bubble time. It's still trying to get things moving.''

            Schweizer cautioned that sales like the $95 million Picasso had skewed reality. ``If someone speaks of Russians, it is usually about the money,'' he said. ``That doesn't create the market itself. It creates the perception.''