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Russian Lacquer Boxes

Lacquered wares – wood or metal objects decorated with coats of lacquer – date from antiquity. This opulent art, however, reached Russia in the 18th century when Peter the Great “Westernized” the country.
Over time, four great schools of Russian lacquerware arose in villages near Moscow, each developing a distinct style based on specific traditions and techniques.

Russian lacquer snuffbox, circa 1860, its hinged lid finely painted with scene of a family at the market, the interior in faux tortoise shell. Lukutin mark beneath the Imperial Warrant. This item was acquired by the consignor from the noted exhibition, “Russian Lacquer Art From Two Centuries,” Museum For Lacquer Art, Münster, Germany, 1996. Sold for $1,200 + buyer’s premium in 2013. Images courtesy of Jackson’s Auction and LiveAuctioneers

The earliest, dating from 1795, produced lacquered, papier-mâché visors for army helmets, as well as lacquered snuffboxes. When inherited by Piotr Lukutin, this workshop also produced papier-mâché match boxes and cigar cases, typically depicting sentimental scenes of Russian life.
Preparation was extensive, generally taking an average of six weeks. Yet boiling these lightweight, handcrafted boxes in linseed oil, then oven-drying, priming, polishing, and lacquering them, made them not only durable but also impervious to water.

Russian lacquered covered box, Fedoskino, depicts a Snow Girl from a Russian fairy tale, hand-painted. Realized $300 + buyer’s premium in 2010. Image courtesy of DuMouchelles and LiveAuctioneers

When Lukutin’s workshop closed in 1904, its craftsmen continued independently under the name of their village, Fedoskino. “Fedoskinos,” created with successive layers of thin oil paint, agleam with mother-of-pearl, metallic powders, or gold-leaf underlay, are famed for their detail, visual depth, and luminescence. Many portray realistic scenes of rustic landscapes or peasants dancing, fetching water or assembling tree-bark shoes. Others depict famous personalities, miniature reproductions of classic paintings, or favorite fairy tales, like Father Frost and the Maiden, The Frog Princess, and Ruslan and Ludmila. “Fedoskino” typically appears at the center or left lower margin of these miniatures. Artists’ signatures, rendered in complementary shades, appear to the right.

A rare, very fine, highly detailed icon “Praise the Lord From the Heavens,” Central Russian, Palekh, circa 1800. Image courtesy of Hargesheimer Kunstauktionen Düsseldorf and LiveAuctioneers

After the 1917 Revolution, Russian authorities widely suppressed religious expression, so craftsmen of Palekh, a village long recognized for its superb Russian Orthodox icons, applied their extraordinary skills to lacquered boxes instead. Like their icons, “Palekhs” feature brilliant, egg-based tempera images against dark, solid grounds, enhanced by fine gold or silver leaf ornamentation.

Russian Palekh lacquer box, signed Alexei Vatagin (1881-1947), dated 1926 and N 1838. Realized $1,800 + buyer’s premium in 2018. Image courtesy Soulis Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Many portray popular folk songs, legends, ballets, operas and poems with images of elongated, icon-like figures. Others feature traditional images, like fierce Cossacks atop majestic steeds, spirited “troikas,” or three-horse teams, pulling sledges through the snow; or unfolding folk narratives like “The Tale of the Humpback Pony.” More contemporary Palekhs depict dramatic scenes of Soviet life , the USSR emblem or portraits of Joseph Stalin. Many are signed in fine gold script.

Agitlak papier-mache Palekh miniature box, tempera on varnished papier-mache depicting scenes of Soviet life with portrait of Joseph Stalin and USSR emblem. Realized $24,000 + buyer’s premium in 2014. Image courtesy of Shapiro Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Some describe Palekh miniatures as “small miracles,” owing to their fine workmanship and illustrious lineage.
Craftsmen in nearby Kholui also originally made icons before venturing into lacquer boxes. While their boxes feature egg-based tempera images embellished with gold-leaf highlight, their designs are more realistic, less nuanced, and bolder. In addition, “Kholui” palettes feature employ reds, yellows, browns, and orange against bright, dramatic, swirled backgrounds.
Kholui lacquer boxes often depict ancient cathedrals, churches, convents, monasteries, or the architectural glories of historical cities like Suzdal or Yaroslavl. Many, celebrating the joys of nature, depict local landscapes, like the springtime floods along Kholui’s picturesque river, the Teza. Some are more fanciful and portray sweeping oral epic poems or beloved fairy tales like “Seven Semeons” or “Scarlet Flower.” Others depict traditional Russian customs, like greeting guests with loaves of bread and loaves of salt.

Russian hand-painted lacquer box, “Bread & Salt,” depicting a woman in kokoshnik [traditional Russian headdress] offering traditional welcome of loaf of bread and cup of salt. Made in Kholui, artist-signed and dated “Rozova 2012.” Image courtesy of Auctions at Showplace and LiveAuctioneers

Mystera was once an icon-making village, too. But unlike Fedoskino, Kholui, and Palekh boxes, their designs were decorated only the lids. Some are edged in lacy gold or silver and depict fine, floral bouquets. Others portray villages, fields, or forests (replete with faraway blue and lilac-hued hills and dales), romantically melting into pale, egg-based tempera pink, blue, gold, or ivory backgrounds.
Other “Mysteras” depict seasonal fairs, festivities, or traditional Russian activities like mushroom or berry-picking. More dynamic examples commemorate historic events or heroic battles. Others feature colorful fantasies inspired by Russian songs, legends, fairy tales, and literary works like Pushkin’s “Tale of the Golden Cockerel” and “The Snow Queen” by Hans Christian Andersen.
Antique Russian lacquer boxes are prized not only for their beauty and exquisite craftsmanship but also for the passion and national pride their images evoke. Because each box is a handmade artwork, collecting opportunities are endless, and the potential discovery of a new addition to one’s collection is always just around the corner.

A Beginner’s Guide to Collecting Fabergé Pendant Eggs

Fabergé’s miniature pendant eggs are an exceedingly enjoyable area to collect. In what other area can you purchase a Fabergé egg that you can also wear everyday?

Perhaps no country is better known for its Easter eggs than Russia. From the jeweled creations of Fabergé to humble woodcarvings, the holiday could not be celebrated without the decoration and exchange of numerous eggs. With the tradition dating back to the 15th century, by the 1890s wealthy families presented each other with precious miniature eggs each year. Eggs could be decorated with symbols of the season, family professions, or love tokens. Strung on gold necklaces, a lady might have multiple necklaces by her later years.

Jeweled pendant eggs can range from affordable to quite expensive, so where should a novice collector begin? Read on for 5 key tips to beginning your Fabergé pendant egg collection.

1. It’s important to begin with an established and trustworthy seller who is willing to guarantee authenticity.

Fabergé gold-mounted carved purpurine miniature pendant egg, St Petersburg, circa 1908-1917. Lot 109. Estimate: $8,500-12,000

Fabergé gold-mounted carved purpurine miniature pendant egg, St Petersburg, circa 1908-1917

2. Consider the materials you prefer: the translucent guilloché enamels for which Fabergé is famed or a more unusual material like the matte purpurine, a rare and unusual glass that is so opaque it resembles a carved hardstone. Do you want an egg with an elephant or clover, symbols of good luck, or perhaps your birthstone? Eggs are available in every style and color, and designs can be surprisingly modern.

A Fabergé amethyst and gilded silver miniature pendant Easter egg, St. Petersburg, circa 1898-1908. Lot 98. Estimate: $4,000-6,000

A Fabergé amethyst and gilded silver miniature pendant Easter egg, St. Petersburg, circa 1898-1908

3. Examine the egg or photos of the egg carefully. It should show some signs of wear. When strung together on a necklace, the eggs often bumped into one another and tiny chips or bumps can appear on enamel surfaces. Large areas of loss and repair negatively impact price while an important provenance will increase it. The Red Cross egg (featured below) has a small area of discoloration that is fairly common with enameled eggs, and the estimate reflects the tiny bit of wear as well as the desirability of the subject matter.

A Fabergé gold and guilloché enamel miniature pendant Easter egg, workmaster Andrei Adler, St Petersburg, circa 1900. Lot 105. Estimate: $2,500-4,500

A Fabergé gold and guilloché enamel miniature pendant Easter egg, workmaster Andrei Adler, St Petersburg, circa 1900

4. Spend a little time familiarizing yourself with Russian hallmarks. Pendant eggs are mostly constructed on a frame of gold and are marked on the bale, the small suspension ring from which they can be attached to a necklace or bracelet. The bale is a small space for the relatively large maker’s marks and hallmarks, especially if we compare them to the diminutive marks used in France! Russian jewelers stamped items with the numbers 56 (equivalent to 14K) or 72 (equivalent to 18K).

Detail of the 56 mark (equivalent to 14K). Lot 109.

Detail of the 56 mark (equivalent to 14K)

5. If your budget doesn’t extend to a Fabergé pendant Easter egg, consider buying a Russian pendant Easter egg. Prices are significantly cheaper and the pendants can be just as lovely, if a bit less complex.

A Russian gem-set gold pendant egg, circa 1900. Lot 107. Estimate: $1,500-2,500

A Russian gem-set gold pendant egg, circa 1900

This week’s Fine & Decorative Arts Auction features beautiful Fabergé style pendant eggs. Take a look here!


Written by Karen Kettering, Vice President at John Atzbach Antiques in Redmond, Washington.