Russians Push Up Prices of Rare Icons

UnknownMaria Paphiti, an icons specialist at Christie's in London, says Russian buyers are fueling the booming icons market.
Last May, Maria Paphiti, an icons specialist at Christie's in London, was invited to inspect some religious paintings on wood that were among the contents of a building recently bought by an English family. The artworks had been found wrapped in plastic, and the building's new owners wondered what, if anything, they were worth.

The answer: a lot, particularly if they drew the attention of Russian buyers who have embarked on a massive spending spree to recover the country's exiled treasures.

Paphiti quickly singled out one piece as quite valuable. The 1894 icon "St. Nicholas the Miracle Worker of Myra" had a rare signature by acclaimed Russian icon painter Mikhail Dikarev. It had also been framed in gilt and enamel by Yakov Mishukov, a well-known Moscow craftsman. Adding to its value was a dedication on the back saying it had been presented to the last tsar, Nicholas II, by the Old Believers community, which broke with the established Russian Orthodox Church in the 17th century over changes to the church's rites.

How the icon got to London, only to be discarded in an obscure building, remains a mystery, Paphiti said.

The icon was put on the block in June. Bidding started slowly at ?20,000, or almost $40,000 -- Christie's presale estimate. An impatient Russian bidder quickly made an offer of $200,000, and then two bidders, both unidentified Russians, faced off in bids made by intermediaries until the icon was sold for $854,000, a world record for an icon at auction. For the happily bewildered English family, who told Christie's they wished to remain anonymous, it was an astonishing windfall. "They couldn't believe it," Paphiti said.

The sale was new evidence that the market for Russian icons is skyrocketing. Fueled by religious patriotism and encouraged by both the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church, the country's tycoons are reclaiming masterpieces that were scattered worldwide by the chaos of the Bolshevik Revolution, the flight into exile of those opposed to the Communists, and the illegal export of art, which continued into the 1990s.

Russians are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to reacquire all kinds of Russian art, not just icons. To help the process, the government has eliminated customs duties on the import of art. The market is so good that con artists are occasionally getting into the act.

In recent years, Viktor Vekselberg acquired the 180-piece Forbes collection of Faberge eggs for $100 million and put them on exhibit here. In September, Alisher Usmanov spent $40 million to buy the art collection of the late cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, then turned it over to the state as a gift.

At Christie's, sales of icons and religious artifacts have jumped from $140,000 in 2005 to $14 million last year, and 70 percent of the buyers are Russian, Paphiti said. Both Christie's and Sotheby's are reporting tens of millions of dollars in annual sales of Russian art.

"A patriotic wave has appeared in Russia," said Mikhail Yelizavetin, 68, who made his fortune in construction and now has one of the country's finest private icon collections. "There is a pride in returning these icons to their motherland. I'm not talking about speculation in icons, I'm talking about real national pride. Many people have a sincere, pure reaction to this kind of art."

Prices of icons are doubling and tripling each year.

"It's fantastic," said Vladimir Studenikin, a Moscow dealer who makes regular trips to bid at London auctions for himself and private Russian buyers.

The boom has also spawned skilled counterfeiters who retouch primitive but old icons to make them seem like masterpieces. Complicating matters is the fact that some apparently ancient icons are forgeries made in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Distinguishing a 19th-century fake from a 14th-century original can be extraordinarily difficult, art experts say.

For some Russians, icons, particularly those that predate the early 17th century and are uninfluenced by Western motifs, are the truest form of Russian art. Icons made for the last tsars are particularly valued. Their possession dovetails with a renewed sense of nationalism and religious identity among the country's elite.

"The soul of ancient Russia is expressed most clearly in an icon," said Nadezhda Bekeneva, head of the department of ancient art at the Tretyakov Gallery. "It's a wonderful thing that our businessmen are returning our wealth to the motherland."