Demand for Russian Silver Thrives, and Here’s Why

Antique Russian enameled silver egg, Kaminski Auctions (February 2017)

Russian silver is a broad and varied collectible, spanning several centuries and a range of ornate motifs and designs. And demand for it, particularly for 19th-century “Slavic revival” pieces, is ever on the rise.

Nick Nicholson, SVP, Division Head of Furniture & Decorative Arts and Specialist in Silver, Objets de Vertu, and Russian Works of Art at Freeman’s, says that those who collect in the field, both inside and outside Russia, have been and still are “solid collectors” who develop a strong passion and persistence that lasts for decades.

“Russian silver takes a special kind of collector; people are passionate about it. It’s an extraordinary body of material culture, and a wonderful field to get interested in,” says Nicholson. Interestingly, he adds, recent and past political tensions with Russia have had only a limited effect on the international market. “Collectors just don’t ever give up.”

Nicholson offered us a unique window into these metallic masterpieces, including insight on the most sought after types of Russian silver on the market today, which red flags to watch for when identifying forgeries, and how to properly care for your pieces.

Fine Russian silver niello and parcel-gilt tankard, Moscow, first quarter of
18th century, Freeman’s (October 2016)

Let’s start by talking about what you’re seeing as the most collectible types of Russian silver on the market today. Do these pieces generally have an interesting story or provenance? Is there a specific time period that collectors search for?

Nick Nicholson: Russian silver is a broad field, though it does break itself down into several very distinct collecting categories. There’s early Russian silver, which predates Peter the Great (1682-1725), by which we mean examples of silver in the old Russian style using Russian forms (such as the kovsh, bratina, and charka). This period also includes Russian techniques such as niello, which is a black metallic alloy of sulfur with silver, copper, or lead that used to fill designs that have been engraved on the surface, leaving a design or image. The centers of production for older silver were largely Moscow, Veliky Ustiug, Pskov, among other areas.

After Peter the Great declared himself Emperor (1721), the influence of Western silver began to assert itself and a new period began to take shape. At this time, Russian silversmiths began to explore Western forms such as the tankard, the salver, and other more common forms, and the center of production began to shift toward St. Petersburg.

By the 19th century, Russian silver began to develop in the manner of its western counterparts, with the exploration of many different revival styles (like Neoclassical, Baroque, and Rococo). It also honors its own national design heritage with “Slavic revival” works inspired by the book of designs by Feodor Solntsev, whose illustrations of the Kremlin collections started a national style that became internationally popular. Slavic style, or “Old Russian,” pieces were even retailed in the United States by firms such as Tiffany & Co. and Wanamakers.

In addition to these various types of works and styles, collectors are interested in specific makers whose works are known throughout the world. To name a few: Fabergé , Ovchinnikov, Khlebnikov, Morozov, Grachev, and Nichols & Plinke. These makers all inspire passionate collectors. If Fabergé has impeccable provenance, hasn’t been restored, and people haven’t seen it before, it goes through the roof. But if it’s something that’s been through the sale rooms a lot over the last 10-15 years, or has been restored, it languishes.

Then we have the silver pieces that fall into the objets de vertu category, such as cigarette cases, silver frames, necessaires, desk ornaments and vanity table accessories that were made by Faberge and his competitors. These were in silver, silver-gilt, and sometimes silver and enamel. Enameled silver is a whole other field of its own.

So when people search for Russian silver on sites like Invaluable, what are they looking for? Likely 19th-century Slavic revival pieces – cigarette cases, cigar boxes, flatware or tableware in the Slavic style, articles of silver with trompe l’oeil effects, silver with Imperial associations and much more. This is the collecting category in which there are the most fakes.

Lot 361, Russian silver box, marked to interior 81, Lyon & Turnbull (February 2017)

Are objects that are tied to certain notable events in history – such as wartime – in high demand at auction?

NN: In the period of WWI, Fabergé made a number of items to support the war efforts. Because precious metals were restricted, he made items in copper and steel – things like copper pots and cigarette cases with the Russian imperial eagle on them. Those pieces fetch high prices right now if you can find one in good condition. They do extremely well at auction, especially because this year is the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution (March 8 – November 7, 1917) and next year, of the end of first World War (1914-1918). They are quite rare, but there’s definitely a market for them, and I have noted forgeries in this sector.

Who is collecting Russian silver today, and why? Are they typically of Russian descent?

NN: Generally, we work with collectors at a high level who are looking for pieces to round out their collections. They may be missing a work by a particular maker or form. The kind of entry-level collectors who just want silver that is “Russian-looking” generally look for 19th-century copies of kovshi, bratiny, and charki. These are silver forms that were common in pre-Petrine Russia for daily use, but then became common to use as gifts for weddings or other important events. They were made by every maker and were certainly the number one gift items before the Russian revolution.

I have a couple of clients who come from aristocratic families who left during the Revolution and have spent 3 generations in the US. They still speak Russian, are Russian Orthodox, identify as Russian, and they absolutely collect Russian silver pieces. Of course people that have Russian blood have a special affinity for these works, but the American collectors of this material are certainly not limited to this type.

Silver-gilt & cloisonné enamel coffee pot, Antip Kuzmichev,
Moscow, 1887, Christie’s (April 2009)

That provides a great overview to the field. So for new collectors, where’s the best place to start?

NN: If you’re starting off, focus on the 19th-century. The 19th-century is the period with the largest volume of material for collectors, and you don’t need to have the same level of specialist experience and knowledge that one needs to collect 17th- and 18th-century Russian silver.

Here are my top tips:

1) Try to see as much Russian silver in person as possible. Go to reputable dealers, auction houses, and museums. There is good Russian silver on view in New York, Cleveland, New Orleans, Richmond, and Washington. It’s always worth looking at the real thing.

2) Buy what you love and be prepared to hold onto it for a while. The prices have gone up and down in the last couple of decades, and they will continue to do so. This is not something you’d want to buy as an investment and “flip” – buy something you love and hold onto it.

3) Buyer beware. Forgeries are rife throughout all of the collecting categories in Russian silver because the prices have been so extraordinarily high for the past 15 years. But prices are beginning to come down again, so there is a lot of opportunity for entry-level collecting.

4) If a piece of silver has double-headed eagles all over it, watch out. That’s one of the first things that forgers do – they try to establish imperial provenance by adding double-headed eagles to everything. Generally, there is only a double-headed eagle on something if there’s a reason for it. The arms were used only if it was an imperial gift, or manufactured for a state occasion, or an official piece of silver – you just don’t find it on everything. When was the last time you saw the Seal of the United States on flatware or a tea set in someone’s house?

Do you have any other tips for determining authenticity?

NN: The easiest way to determine authenticity of Russian silver is if the object has an “unbroken” provenance. Generally, my advice is: If it looks too good to be true, it’s probably too good to be true. The chances that you have found an entire flatware set by Fabergé at a rural auction Alabama for $150-250 are pretty slim.

Fabergé is its own category in and of itself. There were quite a few sculptures made by Fabergé in silver, and those are widely reproduced and copied as fakes. Look out for the endless bears, lizards, frogs, and rabbits haunting the internet with dead eyes and sloppy chasing.

Lot 437, Russian silver-gilt and shaded enamel kovsh, Ivan Saltykov, Moscow,
1896-1908, Freeman’s (February 2017)

Do collectors actually use their Russian silver, or do they keep it simply for display?

NN: I’ve been to collectors’ houses and have seen them use beautiful Fabergé flatware services for dinner or entertaining. People also use silver-mounted crystal decanters for wine or water. At the end of the day, the things made by Fabergé are only about 100 years old – lots of these things are only just antiques, like “Grandma’s silver,” so they do get used.

Once you have a acquired a collection you’re proud of, what’s the secret to keeping your silver clean?

NN: The Niello pieces should only be cleaned by a professional. Niello boxes, cigarette cases, tankards, and champagne flutes may be easily ruined if you don’t know what you’re doing.

Russian silver should be treated like sterling silver, though Russian silver is a different alloy than British or American silver, which is on the sterling standard, and as a result, it’s a lot tougher. It takes much higher detail in casting and doesn’t wear down – what you’re looking for in Russian silver is sharp relief, beautiful contrasts, and not a lot of wear. Russian silver has crisp detail and a lot of drama. As a result, it never looks quite the same way as sterling, which has such a soft look and glow.

Find Russian silver tableware and other decorative works now available on Invaluable.