Wednesday, February 6, 2008

A Rich Market for Russian Icons

An icon is restored at a Moscow gallery opened by tycoon Mikhail Abramov to display his extensive collection. (By Peter Finn -- The Washington Post)

As Tycoons Reclaim National Treasures, Counterfeiters Also Emerge
By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 5, 2008; Page A15

MOSCOW -- Last May, Maria Paphiti, an icons specialist at Christie's auction house 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 the acclaimed Russian icon painter Mikhail Dikarev. It had also been framed in gilt and enamel by Jakov Mischukov, a well-known Moscow craftsman.

Adding to the icon's value was a dedication on the back saying it had been presented to the last czar, 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 last June 11. Bidding started slowly at 20,000 pounds, or almost $40,000 -- Christie's pre-sale estimate. An impatient Russian bidder quickly stepped in with an offer of $200,000 and then two bidders, both unidentified Russians, faced off in bids made by intermediaries over the phone until the icon was sold to one of them 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 in a telephone interview from London.

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