By: John R. Hall
The following discussion is to help prospective collectors of religious icons make purchasing decisions. I am a dealer and collector of icons, not an accomplished scholar in these important religious, cultural, and socially significant art forms. But perhaps, by providing you some dealerís tips, you will be able to choose well.
I developed an interest in icons before they became generally available, acquisition being limited due to scarcity and general costliness. In the early 1990ís Russian icons began appearing in greater abundance following dissolution of the Soviet Union and it became easier to acquire them. Eventually I was able to build a modest collection of antique icons without too many costly errors.
With regard to Russian icons, many were carried out by refugees and fleeing aristocrats after the Revolution of 1917. However, there apparently remained a large number hidden away where they endured relatively well. With spotty export controls in the 1990ís, thousands of 18th and 19th century Russian icons appeared in antique shops, auctions, and markets throughout the world. Indeed, they are relatively plentiful even today although most antique icons were painted in the late 19th and early 20th century. During this period, large numbers of lithographed icons were also manu-factured. They can seem attractive until one realizes the technique used to make them was used also to make, for example, colorful looking cans of peas, tobacco tins, and beauty products. In my mind, such icons are devoid of any of the mystical qualities associated with hand-painted icons.
Greek, Russian & Other Icons
You will occasionally find icons from Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine or perhaps the Greek islands. However, most of the icons you will encounter in the U. S. markets will be either Greek or Russian with the latter outnumbering greatly the former.
Beginners sometimes have difficulty differentiating Greek from Russian Orthodox icons. It is fairly simple: Greek icons are labeled in Greek. Russian icons employ Church Slavonic, an old language predating modern Cyrillic. The publication by Paulson and Paulson, Guide to Russian Works of Art, (1980) has tables comparing Church Slavonic letters to Cyrillic as well as to Ukrainian, Bulgarian, and Serbian. Often in Russian icons, it is difficult to read the named saint as the name may be abbreviated. There seems to be few standardized abbreviations used on old Russian icons.
Greek icons generally show individuals with regular body proportions, e.g., they look like every day people though they may be performing heroic tasks. Russian icons commonly depict saints and members of the Holy Family as big eyed, long limbed, and narrow shouldered. This conveys an almost El Greco-like other worldliness. They have a mysterious appearance perhaps drawn from Byzantine predecessors.
For centuries, orthodox icons from Greek and Russian workshops have been painted with colors, shapes, and postures according to church law. An icon of St. Nicholas painted in the late 12th century compared with one painted in the 19th century would show him with the same beard, hairline, and posture. Antique Russian icons of St. Nicholas, show a person with male pattern baldness wearing a bishopís omophorion with crosses but with the additions of smaller images of Christ holding the Gospel and the Virgin holding an omophorion. There are many legends why this trio appears so commonly in Russian icons. One relates to an occurrence at the 4th century First Council of Nicaea in Turkey. Here, the young Nicholas disputed loudly the presence of a heretic. Being highly disruptive, he was asked to leave. Ever the obedient servant, he departed. The Council continued until late and the head organizer, a bishop, retired, exhausted from the dayís activities. During the night the bishop awoke to see a marvelous vision at the foot of his bed. Here stood an older Nicholas, garbed as a bishop and flanked by Christ and the Virgin. It is not difficult to guess who was invited back to the Council the next day. Virtually all Russian icons of their patron saint depict the bishopís vision of some 1500 years ago. In fact, some Russian icons show the three figures full size, reminding us more exactly of the bishopís midnight vision.
There are many sources of icons, especially with the advent of the internet. Auctions on eBay always offer new, antique and made-to look-antique icons. I have also found about 100 web sites advertising antique icons.
A trip to countries once part of the Soviet Union such as the Baltic states (Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia) provides a means to acquire icons legitimately as documentation and clearance can be provided fairly quickly through their ministries of culture. Sometimes proper documentation has already been
acquired by the dealer thus expediting the purchase and making it legal to export. Clearance papers are necessary when returning to the U.S and passing through customs inspection even though they may be written in languages not understood fully by U.S. officials. Overseas costs are tending to increase, especially with European Dealers switching dollar prices into Euros.
Icons also show up with some regularity at both local and national auction houses. In the past, auctions were occasionally a means for acquiring a treasure at a bargain price. Today, the simultaneous offering of the item on the internet limits such occurrences as you may have thousands of potential buyers watching the auction. Auctions do provide an opportunity to examine estate collections and to occasionally acquire rare items such as Greek and Greek island icons not normally available. A recurrent problem involves sellers with limited knowledge of attributes and values of icons. You can get a bargain or you can overpay for a worm-eaten piece, a newly painted icon on an old panel or perhaps a completely new icon with an "antiqued" varnish.
I strongly recommend acquiring Sothebyís, Christieís, and Phillips auction catalogues. The color plates are very good as are the descriptions of the icons. As the catalogues also have sale prices you can get a good idea of market prices at the time of the sale. To buy catalogs, use your computerís search engine to check the auction companiesí websites for prices and availability.
Just because the pleasant gentleman in the antique shop in Moscow was willing to sell you a lovely old icon, it does not mean it can be carried out of the country. Russian customs officers often x-ray all luggage and can confiscate whatever they please. The same can happen in the United States if you enter carrying foreign antiques without proper documentation. It is possible to acquire clearance documents from the Russian Ministry of Culture. This requires time and effort and offers no guarantee that you will able to depart with an icon.
A cautionary note for those contemplating purchases of icons in Russia or other states of the old Soviet Union. You should remember that smuggling is an international offence, punishable under law in both the country of origin and in the United States. You risk possible confiscation, costly fines, and considerable embarrassment. The point here is donít do it!
SO, YOU WANT TO START A COLLECTION
Most collectors tend to collect a few "test" examples before amassing a collection and attendant library. And, even though you will eventually understand a great deal more than the contents of this paper, your best bet is to work with a caring and competent professional dealer. Most dealers do not object to discussing their inventory and may in fact, go on at length about the characteristics and quality of their offerings.
Like any specialized field, collecting icons has it own vocabulary that you need to become familiar with. While there isnít room in this article to give the definitions, here are some of the words and terms you will need to understand to enhance your icon collecting experience - Adzing, Assist , Basma, Burn Marks, Cutting Marks and Shape Uniformity, Egg Tempera, Finish, House Paint, Kiot, Kovcheg, Levkas, Oklad, Olifa, Omophorio, Panel, Riza, Rub Marks, Odor, Sphonki and Weight.
If you buy an icon it is a good idea to get a written description of the icon and assurance that if the item is unsatisfactory, you will receive a full refund or at least a full trade on another piece. The dealer wants you to be a happy, loyal customer and will go a long way towards achieving that goal.
Following a purchase, I would spend a bit of time with the icon, examining it in detail and looking for some of the characteristics described in this article. You may wish to borrow books on icons from the library or purchase a few from a bookstore or online. In any event, learn more about your new treasure. It is likely that the more you learn, the greater your interest in building a collection. There are many ways to do this in an informed and cost-efficient manner. Good luck in your search.
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