Russian Imperial-Era Silver

Russian silver of the pre-Revolution Imperial period is famed for superior quality and a wide variety of fine designs. The earliest pieces, dating from the 12th century forward, embody Old Russian styles and forms like regal crowns, caps, scepters, charkas and kovshi (traditional drinking vessels). Many feature restrained niello work — delicate, ornamental lines accentuated with black metal enamel.

During the reign of Peter the Great (1682-1725), the tsar who westernized the Russian Empire, local silversmiths began exploring more modern forms. Over time, the Russian Imperial family, along with members of the aristocratic and wealthy classes, dined from fashionable, solid-silver Baroque, Rococo, then Neoclassic-style goblets, platters, caviar urns, serving dishes, bread “baskets,” wine ladles and cutlery. Since they were ardent tea lovers as well, many also commissioned stunning silver samovars and tea sets comprised of caddies, tea glass-holders, sugar-cube boxes, and cream jugs. Scores also acquired traditionally shaped silver charkas or kovshi, modernized with gilt-gold ornamentation, chased scrolling foliage, or engraved inscriptions like “Drink to your Health and Happiness.”

Gilt silver and niello snuffbox, probably Veliky Ustyug, featuring Old Testament scenes, circa 1770, €4,800 plus buyer’s premium in 2017. Image courtesy of Hargesheimer Kunstauktionen Düsseldorf and LiveAuctioneers

Sets of small silver treasures, like thimbles, vodka cups, demitasse spoons, and cup-and-saucers, were probably displayed in grand “vitrine” glassed cabinets. Showier gilt-silver cigarette cases, snuff boxes, jeweled cigar cases and tankards likely graced sumptuous drawing rooms and libraries. Silver hand mirrors, perfume bottles, powder boxes, servant bells, and caskets (for storing rubles and jewelry) adorned stylish ladies’ dressing tables.

Gilt silver and champleve enamel throne salt cellar in historic Russian Revival style, 1888, $3,000 plus buyer’s premium in 2014. Image courtesy Shapiro Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Many Russian nobles also sought silverwork religious items, like crosses or finely painted icons with shining protective covers, for personal prayer. Russian Orthodox monasteries and churches, on the other hand, favored more impressive pieces, like silver censors, chalices, and tabernacles, for public veneration.

Cloisonné enamel gilt silver tea glass-holder, marked Pavel Ovchinnikov, Imperial warrant, Moscow, circa 1890-1893, $6,000 plus buyer’s premium in 2012. Image courtesy Fox Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Niello solid-silver creations, many depicting Biblical scenes or architectural wonders like the Kremlin, were beloved classics. As time went by, however, bright, colorful cloisonné-enamel floral or geometric patterns came into favor and enhanced everything from picture frames, cane handles, and pipe stems to bowls, napkin rings, sugar tongs and “throne” salt cellars.

Many of these objects were further adorned with opulent gilt silver or delicate, transparent, plique-à-jour accents. Others featured bolder champlevé-enamel designs, formed by filling decorative recesses with vitreous enamel before firing.

Massive Fabergé Neoclassical gilt silver and cut-glass decanter, 1908-1917, €27,500 plus buyer’s premium in 2020. Image courtesy Baltic Auction Group OU and LiveAuctioneers

The Late Imperial Era – when Russian silversmiths like Khlebnikov, Ovchinnikov and hundreds of others designed exceptional, award-winning silver objects – was the most prolific production period of all. But it is the creations of the Karl Fabergé workshop that have attained legendary status.

“Fabergé silver has always been a synonym for opulence and finest quality,” said Alexander Pushkin, Director at Pushkin Antiques Ltd. “The combination of precious materials and supreme craftsmanship applies both to practical objects and non-utilitarian ones such as his ‘eggs,’ miniature animals and flowers. Nowadays some of Fabergé’s most famous decorative pieces, dating between 1885 and 1917, are displayed in the most important international museums. They are also avidly sought at auction and treasured by collectors. Although it’s very difficult to sum up Fabergé in a few words, what I admire most about his work is its uncompromising attention to detail and his priority to aesthetics over function.”

Russian Silver and Cloisonné Enamel Kvosh, St. Petersburg, 1908-1917, $60,000 plus buyer’s premium in 2019. Image courtesy Shapiro Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

The opulent lifestyle of the Russian upper classes drew to a close during political upheavals of the early 20th century. Troves of precious silver pieces seized from silversmiths, jewelers, wealthy merchants, aristocrats and the Russian Imperial Family were melted down for coinage or indiscriminately destroyed. Some pieces were sold internationally for hard cash or smuggled West by fleeing Russian refugees.

As Russian silver flooded the European market, prices fell. In times of economic hardship, people often raised cash by melting pieces down.

Russian silver enamel cigarette case, Grachev Brothers, St. Petersburg, $1,800 plus buyer’s premium in 2013. Image courtesy of Hampton Estate Auction and LiveAuctioneers

The breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the subsequent rise of a wealthy oligarchy have inspired a new generation of Russian collectors spurred by growing nationalism and an interest in art history. Others seek silver as investment pieces or to give as high-status gifts to those who might extend political favors.

Pre-revolutionary silver objects that managed to survive the vicissitudes of Russian history have become extremely collectible because, as some might say, “They just don’t make them like that anymore.”

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