Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Shopping Tips

People without any artistic training can produce up to 10 lacquer boxes a day, while it takes at least three days for a trained miniaturist to complete a true work of art. But how can a buyer tell the difference between a rip-off and the real thing?

There are currently two types of fakes on the market. The first are called "cartoons" and are boxes made with high-quality photocopies glued to the surface of a lacquer box. The second are boxes with real miniature painting done to a substandard quality.

Thanks to advances in color-copying, it is often impossible to tell the difference between a real box and a "cartoon." It is also difficult for an untrained eye to distinguish between superior and inferior work. Experts say these tips should help:

? Make sure the painted portion of the box is not slightly elevated. This is a sign that you are looking at a "cartoon."

? Pay attention to the smoothness and brightness of the lacquer application inside the box, as well as on its outer surface, and avoid pieces that look bumpy or dull.

? Make sure colors are vibrant and the gold looks shiny; it shouldn't be the color of mustard. In knock-offs, painters often forgo gold leaf for gold paste, which tends to lose its brightness quickly.

? Pay attention to detail. On high-quality miniatures you should be able to see the leaves on the trees and the color of the eyes on a human figure.

? The gold decoration should not have any smudges.

? Look for the following information on the miniature: the name of the lacquer tradition on the left side of the box, the topic of the lacquer painting in the center, and the name of the artist on the right. The date of the original painting can often also be found on the box. However, some fakes will have all this information as well.

Lacquer experts say the best way to make sure that the purchased work is of acceptable quality is to buy at major gift stores, not at the Izmailovo market or on the Arbat. Stores that are relatively reliable include TsUM at 2 Ulitsa Petrovka, the GUM Gift Store at 4 Tverskaya Ulitsa, Samotsvety Store at 35 Stary Arbat, Moskovsky Khudozhnik at 12 Ulitsa Petrovka and the Souvenir Store at 23 Stary Arbat.

But even consumers in these stores shouldn't let down their guard. If you are about to make a purchase, experts suggest asking if the item is factory-made or produced by a private firm. It is a private firm, check whether they are a member of the Russian National and Folk Art Association. If they are, this is a good sign. Make sure the item comes with a certificate of quality and a phone number.

Finally, be careful if you are buying lacquer boxes as presents to take out of the country. Until 1985 taking lacquer miniatures out of Russia was not permitted because they were considered to be national treasures. Today only antique lacquer miniatures -- those made before 1968 -- cannot leave Russia without special permission.

If you do buy a box made before 1968, make sure to ask the antique store where you bought it to help you get an export permission slip from the Committee of Experts on National Folk Art.

If you buy a box made more recently, hang on to your receipt so you can prove you aren't trying to smuggle out an antique. An acquaintance of mine with a passion for Russian lacquer once held up an entire plane while a customs official made her retrieve every single receipt for the close to 20 boxes she was taking to America.