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Russian Lacquer Boxes and Miniature Painting

Russian Lacquer Boxes and Miniature Painting

Posted by The Russian Gift Shop on Jun 23rd 2015

Entering the Russian folk art and crafts market can be fun, but also confusing. Whether you're considering a gift for someone special or as a treat for yourself, it pays to learn the history and terminology. Unfortunately, there are many questionable sellers, both at the retail and wholesale level. There are also many sellers who are misinformed and sell imitations to unwary consumers. (Lomonosov porcelain, as an example, is constantly being faked in China and sold on eBay, Amazon and elsewhere.)

Much has been written about the beauty of Russian miniature painting. One can spend a great deal of time 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 over 40 years ago when the American and European market for Russian lacquer was coming into its own.

Lucy Maxym (1919-2018) was the principal importer and impresario of Russian lacquer boxes from the 1960's-1990's. Due to her commercial efforts, she subsequently became one of the leading authorities on Russian lacquer. She wrote her first book - "Russian Lacquer, Legends and Fairy Tales" - and self-published it in 1981 and went on to publish several more books on lacquer and icons. Her first book contained a synopsis of the history of each village (Palekh, Kholui, Fedoskino and Mstera). All the while, she maintained her wholesale and trunk show business. She had great influence and commissioned superb quality boxes and imported hundreds each year. She suggested new shapes and colors (cinnabar red, jade green and teal blue). Her recent passing at age of 99 put a wealth of her collection on the auction block. More tellingly, she controlled the value of the boxes in her day with staggeringly high prices, as she was, for a long time, the only game in town. One of her clients was a company by the name of Light Opera, that operated from out of San Francisco, and printed full-color catalogs of boxes with prices ranging from $100 to several thousands of dollars. Thankfully, prices have come down quite a bit, which has made the purchase of a genuine box more affordable, and which is visible in the more sober realized prices from the recent auctions, including her estate.

When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev introduced his "glasnost" policies in 1986, the Palekh box market became a victim of its own success and took a left turn. Sellers, both in the US and in Russia, started to peddle hundreds of boxes that ranged widely in quality. Plagiarism through counterfeits and fakes became a big problem that persists to this day. Plagiarism works as follows: 1) it needs something that is visually distinctive which then becomes a target for fakery, and 2) plagiarism needs a large market with the prospect of big commercial gains. An uneducated consumer cannot differentiate between an original and a pastiche, thus making a good purchase highly unlikely. In making the pastiche, design is seriously diluted during the process of copying. 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 that a large proportion of them can be misattributed (Kholui for Palekh, for example), assigned incorrect time periods, use fake signatures, sell porcelain, plastic and metal boxes that have poor quality painting or are decals or decoupage, and fake trademarks. And this is not only on eBay. Fakes can be found in online galleries, especially American sites, gift shops, even museum shops. In Russia, street vendors and sellers in flea markets, such as Izmailovo, sell fakes to tourists. Production shortcuts also mar the landscape as cheap lacquer is used, which can have the unfortunate tendency to crack, yellow and sometimes peel.

Two more excellent guide books on the complexities of Russian miniatures lacquers are "Russian Lacquer Boxes with Index of Subjects and Cyrillic Key" by David Armstrong (Forkis Publishers, 1992) and "Palekh: Village of Artists" by P. Kosolapov. (Moscow: Progress, 1977). The Armstrong book was poorly received by many dealers due to its being an up-front and honest appraisal of the lacquer box market at that time. Lucy Maxym was unkindly accused by Armstrong for lifting much of the original research in her book from Sid Kaufman, another lacquer pioneer. The Armstrong book can be found on the secondary market. The smaller Kosolapov book (96 pgages) is also very informative on only Palekh with text and pictures that show the labor intense creation of a lacquer box from start to finish. It was printed in 5 languages and distributed widely in the late 1970's. It too can be found on the used book market.

To make a blank 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 as it is lighter than wood or plastic, and stands up to the elements very well, unlike wood which can crack.

The themes for boxes are drawn principally from fairy tales, folk tales, and historical scenes or people. Of the many fairy tales, some of the best loved are Vasilissa the Beautiful, The Scarlet Flower, The Snow Maiden, Ruslan and Ludmila, The Swan Princess, Father Frost and the Maiden, The Firebird, Tsar Saltan, The Frog Princess and The Stone Flower.

A final word about authentication. Since 1992, thanks to "glasnost", the production of boxes was freed up to conform to the free market, i.e., anything goes. Traditional standards of production were co-opted and deteriorated and a great many unofficial boxes emerged. 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 its quality. A real Palekh box should be instantly recognizable. As always, buyer beware. And do your homework.