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Russian Lacquer Boxes and Miniature Painting

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Buying Russian folk art and crafts can be fun and confusing. Whether you're considering a gift for someone special or as a treat for yourself, it pays to take some time to learn the history and terminology. Unfortunately, there are unscrupulous retailers, jobbers, wholesalers and auctioneers, as well as just the plain misinformed who sell imitation Russian arts and crafts to unwary consumers. (Lomonosov porcelain, for example, is being faked in China and has been sold on eBay and elsewhere.)

Much has been written about the beauty of Russian miniature painting. One can spend hours on the internet finding articles about how they are made (it's a complex process), the subject matter (fairy tales, folk tales, genre scenes, landscapes, architecture, florals, etc.), and where and from whom to buy them. We started our shop 40 years ago when the American and European market for Russian lacquer was somewhat fledgling. Lucy Maxym was a stand-out pioneer importer and wholesaler of the boxes from the 1960s-1990s. Due to her commercial efforts, she subsequently became the authority on Russian lacquer. She wrote her first book published in the United States titled "Russian Lacquer, Legends and Fairy Tales" (self-published in 1981) and went on to publish several more books. She continued her wholesale and trunk show business as well. Her first book is a great reference and has full-color pictures of stunning museum pieces as well as the more typical, yet formal, smaller genre boxes. A synopsis of the history of each village (Palekh, Kholui, Fedoskino and Mstera) are in this book. She was basically the only game in town for a long time. One of her clients was a company called Light Opera, which operated out of San Francisco, and printed full-color catalogs of boxes with prices ranging from $100 to several thousands of dollars.

Around the time of Mikhail Gorbachev's "glasnost" policies, starting in 1986, and reaching its apex in the mid to late 1990s, the "Palekh box market" began to get murkier and murkier. Dealers of all sorts, both in the US and in Russia, began to peddle thousands of boxes which ranged widely in quality. Counterfeits and fakes became a problem which persists to this day. It is not that easy to distinguish what is real and what is not - a trained eye is necessary. A systematic study of all the boxes offered on any given day in eBay reveals a large proportion of misattribution (Kholui for Palekh, for example, or incorrect time periods), porcelain, plastic and metal boxes, poor quality painting, silk-screened or decoupaged images, fake signatures and fake trademarks. And not only on eBay. Fakes are being sold in online galleries (especially American sites), gift shops, including museum shops, street vendors and in flea markets such as Izmailovo, and where ever tourists congregate. Another problem is that shortcuts can be taken in applying lacquer to many boxes, which can have the unfortunate tendency to crack, yellow and sometimes peel in short order.

Two more excellent guide books on the complexities of Russian miniatures lacquers are: 1) Russian Lacquer Boxes with Index of Subjects and Cyrillic Key by David Armstrong (Forkis Publishers, 1992) and 2) Palekh: Village of Artists by P. Kosolapov. (Moscow: Progress, 1977.). The Armstrong book was poorly received by many dealers due to its being an honest appraisal of the lacquer box market up to that time. Lucy Maxym, especially was miffed by its publication. Her up-till-then (1992) ally, Light Opera, for example, went to Russia, in his words: "Shake the apple tree" and discovered the incredible profit margins to be made if you dealt direct. One problem: the market was comprimised by fakes and collectors were having a hard time with being burned by junk at high prices. Also, Armstrong unkindly accused Maxym of lifting much of the original research in her book from Sid Kaufman, another lacquer pioneer. Nevertheless, the Armstrong book can be found on the secondary market and is a very accomplished, hard-nosed overview. The smaller Kosolapov book (96 pgs) is very informative on Palekh. It contains text and pictures that follow the creation of a lacquer box from beginning to end. Its scope is such that it was printed in 5 languages, including English. It too can be found on the used book market.

To make a lacquer box for an artist on which to paint, much time is spent in its preparation. Papier-mache boxes take a long time to construct but the end product is favored by most miniature painting artists. The finished product is lighter than wood or plastic, and stands up to the elements very well, unlike wood which can crack.

The thematic subject material for boxes are principally fairy tales, folk tales, and historical scenes or people. Of the many fairy tales from which scenes for box paintings are derived, some of the best loved are The Scarlet Flower, The Snow Maiden, Ruslan and Ludmila, Swan Princess, Father Frost and the Maiden, The Firebird, Tsar Saltan, The Frog Princess and The Stone Flower. Many more tales and stories are also painted.

A final word about authentication. Since 1992, thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev, the production of boxes was freed up to conform to a free-market system. Traditional standards of production quickly were co-opted and deteriorated and a great many unofficial boxes made their way into the marketplace, especially Western markets. Tourist-quality boxes were ubiquitous and certificates, grading, judging and official gold seals all began to disappear or, more often, were faked.

The gold standard of judging a box is not by signatures, sellers, COAs, etc., but by the quality. A real Palekh box should be instantly recognizable. Beautiful work always stands out. Good work should be easily differentiated from bad work. As always, buyer beware and do your homework.




 

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