Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth: Value and Context in the Case of the Taločkin Collection

Donna Oliver, Beloit College

Despite their underground status, the works of Soviet non-conformist artists in the years following the post-Stalinist thaw found both an audience and a market. Western art collectors in particular quickly became interested in what John Bowlt has called “Russia’s other avant-garde,” and they began to smuggle works abroad, amassing large private collections and enriching the collections of Western museums of contemporary art. But not all pieces ended up in the West. For over three decades, Leonid Taločkin accumulated a collection of more than 1500 pieces of nonconformist art by the leading figures of the Soviet underground. Now housed at the “Drugoe Iskusstvo” Museum at the Russian State University for the Humanities, Taločkin’s collection is the largest of its kind in Russia. 

The uniqueness of Taločkin’s collection lies in the history of the collector himself: though not an artist, Taločkin was continually at the center of the movement, befriending artists, helping to organize apartment and open-air exhibits, including the infamous “Bulldozer Exhibition” in 1974, compiling samizdat catalogues of the works displayed, and in essence acting as their archivist. Moreover, his collection consists almost exclusively of works that were given to him by the artists themselves. He never dealt in the trade or sale of pictures, and thus the works he owned were not part of the market of non-conformist art. 

The question of the economic value of a work of art is a complex one, and many of the factors going into such a discussion are unconnected with the aesthetic quality of the work itself: the artist’s reputation, for example, or the purchase history of a work, or the context in which the work was created can all factor into any attempt to assign value.  This paper engages questions of value – both aesthetic and economic – as they relate to the peculiar case of Taločkin’s collection of gifts from non-conformist artists: What effect might a work’s status as a gift have on its market value? What is the relationship between value and context? How does a work’s historical significance affect its economic value? Out of the context of oppression, what is the value of this collection? In addition, the paper proposes another way of assessing this body of work, positing that the real value of Taločkin’s collection lies not in its individual pieces, but rather in its status as a collection, tied inextricably into the personality and life experiences of the collector himself. As such, its integrity is currently in peril: Leonid Taločkin passed away last year intestate, leaving the future of the collection in question and further complicating considerations of its value.