Legacy of the Russian Icons: Authentic Russian lacquer boxes follow artistic tradition

Russian lacquered boxes, miniature painted works of art that developed from icon painting in the 18th century, abound in depictions of folklore, fairy tales, costumes and traditions. There are four distinct styles, represented by four schools of Russian lacquer art, which are named for the villages of their creation, Fedoskino, Palekh, Mystera, and Kholui.

According to Moscow-based Alexey Yershov, the proprietor of Magic Of Fedoskino, Fedoskino is the oldest school of Russian lacquered boxes. Creations from this village typically feature hand-painted miniatures of classic paintings, portraits, or stylized pastoral scenes created in successive layers of oil paint, luminous with underlay of gold leaf, mother-of-pearl, or metallic powders. “Their prices vary,” he adds, “depending on the scenes portrayed, the reputation of their creators, the intricacy of their designs, and the quality and size of their boxes.”

Palekh lacquer ware, which is worked in egg-based tempura paints and traditionally edged in gold or silver borders, often features fierce “Palekh steeds” or “troikas,” sleighs drawn by trios of prancing horses. Many others, like the box labeled “The Little Humpbacked Pony,” depict characters from beloved Russian legends, folksongs, ballets, operas or poetry.

Mystera lacquerware typically depicts classical floral compositions or elaborate fairytale-like fantasies based on folk, historical, or literary works in soft egg-tempera shades against pale blue, pink, or ivory backgrounds. Many, edged in delicate gold or silver floral, bead, or scrollwork patterns, are reminiscent of fine embroidery.

Kholui lacquerware is far more realistic. Its palette, warm with reds, yellows, oranges and browns overlaid with intricate gold leaf highlights, often depict sweeping fairy-tale themes or the architectural glories of ancient Russian towns. Some, like “When Lilac is Blooming,” celebrate the joys of nature and traditional peasant ways of life.

Since wood eventually cracks with age, craftsmen, to this day, hand-sculpt their lacquerware boxes in various shapes and sizes from papiér-mâche. After boiling them in linseed oil, they then prime, polish, lacquer and varnish their surfaces in preparation for painting.

Painting a design on a lacquered miniature, which requires admirable patience and skill, may take many months to complete. After spending years studying then perfecting their craft, lacquer artists, who rely on extremely fine, squirrel-hair brushstrokes to render such delicate detail, may sometimes even sacrifice their eyesight to their art.

Prices vary widely, reports Alexey Yefanov, owner of Russian Lacquer Art, who is also based in Moscow. “With luck, collectors can sometimes find pieces for $100 to $200 on eBay. But those scouting Moscow’s famous Vernisazh Flea Market for antique pieces by founders of the Palekh school like Dydykin, Kotukhin, and Golikov may pay between $5,000 and $10,000 for them at auction.”

Vintage lacquerware boxes from the Soviet Era, which often depict collective farmers and constructors of Socialism, currently command very high prices as well.

Why is Russian lacquerware so expensive? “Because,” explains Yefanov, “this is real art. And really, compared to other works of art, it is not really very expensive at all.” Again, price  depends on the size of the lacquerware creations, the shape of their boxes, their designs, and the reputation of their creators. Moreover, their basic materials, the boxes, pigments, lacquer, and their metallic adornments, are expensive in themselves, adding to their expense.

Many interesting, unique Mystera, Kholui and Palekh boxes are available for under $500. Fedoskino expert Yershov adds, “Medium quality Fedoskino lacquerware boxes, which require great skill and effort, run between $300 and $800. High-quality original boxes, those created by famed artists, generally command many thousands of dollars. Since most lacquer pieces portray scenes on their lids alone, those that portray unfolding narratives on every surface are also rare and highly collectible.

One-of-a-kind originals naturally command the highest prices of all. A Dutch collector, for example, recently purchased a series of 10-15 lacquer plaques by renown Palekh artist Oleg An for $100,000. Another collector purchased a set of large lacquered boxes by contemporary Fedoskino artist Sergey Kozlov, one depicting Moscow and the other St. Petersburg, for $40,000 each. The all-time high, so far, has been the recent sale of another Kozlov creation for $80,000.

Collectors should beware of cheap, factory-made copies of authentic Russian lacquerware. “This is always a problem, even for an experienced collector,” explains Yefanov. “Look for signed stamps inside each box, often on its inner cover, identifying its village of origin or its creator. Expect depictions, troikas, fairy tale scenes and pastoral scenes for example, that are idiomatic.” If in doubt, he suggests examining a potential purchase with a magnifying glass, looking for printed dots (like pixels) that reveal if a “painting” is a picture cut from a book glued in place or has actually been painted.

A collection of Russian lacquered boxes need not be large. A classical one might include 20 to 30 high quality boxes by renowned artists, possibly featuring specific themes like Russian fairy tales, Soviet Era subjects, geographical areas, historic heroes, or battle scenes. Those considering building a collection should begin by studying books that are illustrated with original, high quality works. They then should familiarize themselves with the names and creations of lacquer artists. Of course, anyone happening to visit Russia will enjoy viewing the lacquered boxes often displayed in local village and school museums, as well as in museums of major cities.

Exploring Internet lacquerware websites is valuable too. Along with introducing famed artists, they also depict many of their works, which may reveal their artistic development (or decline) over time.

During the last five years, for example, the traditional style of Nikolay Molodkin, an instructor at the Mystera Art School, has evolved into richly designed, intricate works. “I hope that Nikolay has a big future and will become as famous as his older brother Denis, whose boxes, which are in a very high demand, command prices beginning at $2,000 each,” muses Yershov. He advises, “Find a progressive painter. His boxes, hopefully, will prove a very good investment.”

Melody Amsel-Arieli is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Antique Trader. She is the author of “Between Galicia and Hungary: The Jews of Stropkov.” She lives in Israel.

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