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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Not Only a Souvenir, but Also a Work of Art

There comes a time when every foreign visitor to Moscow has to face one of the big questions: to buy or not to buy a lacquer box. They are about as unavoidable as mosquitoes in July or the faint smell of garlic that permeates the metro. Indeed, lacquer boxes are so common that many overlook them entirely, the way they do fur-hat and postcard hawkers in Red Square. With a selection as vast as it is varied, the first barrier to choosing a shkatulka is sorting the cheap copies from the original works of art. And for those who cannot distinguish a Palekh master from an Arbat rip-off artist, a visit to the Troika gallery is a good way to start your education. Located in an unassuming exhibition hall at 16 Tverskaya Ulitsa, Troika exhibits and sells lacquer boxes from Russia's major schools, and has a sales staff who are as knowledgeable as they are friendly. "A shkatulka can be a souvenir or a work of art," says Oleg Ivanov, the director of Troika. "We have works which represent several years of work and others that were created in a day." With direct links to the factories and artists in Fedoskino, Palekh, Mstera and Kholui, the gallery maintains a representative selection of works from Russia's four schools of lacquer miniatures. Ivanov and his assistants are quick to point out the differences between the styles, provide a magnifying glass for closer examination, or give tips on what to avoid in shkatulka shopping. The Troika display starts with boxes from Fedoskino, where the art form originated in the 18th century. The Fedoskino school is easy to recognize; its human proportions are realistic, and the themes tend to be portraits and landscapes, some of them copies of famous works by western European and Russian painters. Fedoskino artists often use a mother-of-pearl base to lend their works a translucent quality, and they tend to use less gold than their more elaborate counterparts in Palekh. The display quickly evolves into Troika's main area of specialization -- the works from the Palekh school. Originally a center for icon painting, Palekh gave up this tradition under pressure from the Bolshevik government in 1924. In what may be one of the most successful examples of conversion in Soviet history, the village artists put their skills to work painting lacquer boxes. Some even got carried away by the political fervor of the times, painting such cozy scenes as "the collective-farm rally," or "the execution of the white guards." The two other lacquer-miniature schools represented, Mstera and Kholui, are smaller villages close to Palekh whose work resembles the Palekh style. Palekh's miniatures differ from the realistic Fedoskino style in that they feature elaborate scenes from literature and fairy tales. Indeed, a Palekh miniature no bigger than a pillbox may represent an entire volume of Pushkin stories. "Pushkin seems to be the favorite among foreigners," says Ivanov. Those who have not read Pushkin need not fear. Troika's staff will explain them without making you feel like an illiterate fool. In addition to the painted papier-m‰ch? boxes, Troika also has other experimental forms of lacquer miniatures, including bracelets, pins and desk sets. Prices vary from $35 to several thousand dollars, depending on the item, the intricacy of the work, and reputation of the author. (Note that prices do not always correlate to the work's intrinsic value. Fedoskino miniatures tend to run higher than Palekh, Ivanov claims, because it is closer to Moscow and the artists demand higher prices. Similarly, if the artist brings his work directly to the gallery it will be considerably less than if acquired through the factory, which tacks on high administrative costs to include the work in an official register.) All the lacquer miniatures purchased at the gallery come with an official certificate of authenticity, and permission is not required to take them out of the country. If a visit to the Troika gallery does not convince you that it is time to break down and buy that lacquer box, it will at least leave you with a deeper appreciation of the art form. And after you have seen the real McCoy, the Arbat's cheap copies pale in comparison. Troika is located at 16 Tverskaya Ulitsa, between Mayakovskaya and Belorusskaya metros. The gallery is open every day but Sunday from 11 A.M. till 7 P.M. Tel. 250-1412. How to Tell if It Is Genuine or Fake 1. Be careful to avoid nakleiki: Often souvenir hawkers try to pass these off as the real McCoy. They are not handpainted, but have a picture cut out and glued to the top. A closer look through a magnifying glass will separate the nakleiki from the real Palekh. 2. Know your metals: Pay close attention to the gold design around the border and sides of the box. Sometimes faux-Palekh painters use a bronze base instead of actual gold. This gives the fringe a greenish hint and the lines tend to be much heavier than those painted in gold. 3. Gold highlighting: In typical Palekh miniatures, gold paint is not only used around the borders but in the design itself to highlight human features, the cupolas of a church, etc. Amateur copies tend to have little or no gold. 4. Look for the registration number and Palekh stamp of authenticity: All works approved by the Palekh union of artists carry a registration number in gold lettering next to the author's name as well as the Palekh stamp with the firebird symbol on the bottom of the box. This can be deceiving, however, as many Palekh artists now work out of their homes and sell their boxes directly to galleries, so their works are not registered with the factory. 5. Avoid buying lacquer boxes from street vendors: The exposure to sun, dust and moisture can cause the lacquer to crack eventually. 6. Look closely at the faces: Often the quality of the artist is judged by how finely the faces are drawn. The general rule of thumb is the more detailed and elaborate, the better. 7. Avoid copies: Many of the most popular boxes are copied from Palekh art albums. And while Palekh artists may paint copies of their own work, it is not a good sign if your box is an exact copy of one from a Palekh catalog. 8. Titles can be deceiving: Most true Palekh boxes have only the author's name and year (and sometimes the registration number) paint-ed in gold lettering. Only 1 percent have a title as well. If the box has a title it may be a fake. 9. Color: Let your eye get accustomed to the various schools, styles, and colors. Black is the most typical base for Palekh works, but green, red, and sometimes yellow are also used.