William MacDougall, founder of UK’s largest Russian-focused auction house, has died

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William MacDougall, who co-founded MacDougall’s Fine Art Auctions in London, which specialises in Russian, Ukrainian and Eastern European art, died in Moscow, aged 67, it was announced last week.

Founded in 2004, MacDougall’s was the first international auction house to have representatives in Moscow and Kyiv, and it vied with Sotheby’s and Christie’s in selling top lots to a new class of post-Soviet collectors that emerged in the 1990s and 2000s. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Western sanctions have banned auction houses from selling to Russian residents and sanctioned individuals, curtailing much of the auction house’s activity.

MacDougall died from a heart attack on 25 August following a morning swim, his wife Catherine, with whom he co-founded the auction house, tells The Art Newspaper. After his burial in Malakhovka, the suburb in Moscow where they lived, she returned to the UK with their son George.

MacDougall came to Russia at the end of the Soviet era, influenced by his family’s connections to the country. His Russian grandfather, Alexander Chuhaldin, was a first violinist at the Bolshoi Theater who escaped Soviet Russia in 1924 and ended up in Canada, where he became the conductor of the Canada Broadcasting Company’s Radio Orchestra (CBC). Natalia Goncharova painted his portrait and Benjamin Britten dedicated his 1939 composition Young Apollo to him.

As the Soviet Union slipped into Stalinism, MacDougall’s family lost touch with their close relatives who had stayed in Russia. But during the late Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s period of perestroika, a letter from a Russian relative addressed to their pre-WWII address in Canada was forwarded to their new home in California, spurring MacDougall to visit.

“His closest relatives lived in Malakhovka,” Catherine tells The Art Newspaper. “I grew up with his cousin. I met William in the house of his cousin, Vanya. That’s how we met. My great-grandfather stayed, and his grandfather left. They were friends. It is a great story.”

Catherine’s husband, who was three-quarters Scottish, “felt he was Russian in spirit,” she said, and became Russian Orthodox in later life.

Prior to launching the auction house, the couple were London-based bankers and art collectors, with William managing a £4bn pension fund.

“It was William’s idea to start an auction house,” Catherine he sensed an opening in the market, and we started our own auction house without knowing much about the industry. We had an idea about what an ideal auction house should be, since we had been on the buying side. We knew Russian art, we loved Russian art, and that’s why it was predominantly Russian art.” New Russian clients “felt personal attention” and that “William had the integrity of a British auctioneer.”

MacDougall Fine Art Auctions was known for selling many of the artists that the couple personally collected. “William loved figurative, traditional 19th- and turn-of-the-20th-century-Russian art,” Catherine says. “He loved [Ilya] Repin. He loved [Mikhail] Nesterov. He loved [Ivan] Shiskin.” In MacDougall, who was educated at Stanford and Oxford, clients saw someone who “truly loved Russian art and respected Russians”, in contrast with “a lot of people in the West, especially art professionals and art dealers, who saw Russians as a way of making money”, she adds.

James Butterwick, the London-based dealer in Russian and Ukrainian art, in an obituary for Russian Art + Culture, described MacDougall’s auction house as “taking an infinitely less-conventional approach to the selling of art than their better-established competitors” and William as “the quiet, studious power behind the throne”.

Jo Vickery, who ran Sotheby’s Russian sales between 2004 to 2014, wrote in a Facebook post on 5 September: “We had divergent views on how to approach the nascent market for Russian non-conformist art as auctioneers,” but “I was often impressed by their achievements in this field and it felt good that someone else was taking a serious interest in building this market.”

In a 2020 magazine essay, Catherine MacDougall listed her husband’s broad interests: “He thinks about everything on Earth: about the modern world, global warming, the consequences of the Civil War in the US, about everything.” He was, she tells The Art Newspaper, “a very happy man,” who “was not afraid of death”.

She declines to speak about the war in Ukraine. Her husband, she said, helped staff who have family in Ukraine. About the status of MacDougall Fine Art Auctions and the Russian art market she said: “We are still hoping for the situation to improve, but it’s not clear how and when it’s going to be.”

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