Martin McIlroy looks at pre-revolutionary Russian silver for Cornwall Life

PUBLISHED: 14:30 26 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:40 20 February 2013

A late-18th-century Russian silver casket

A late-18th-century Russian silver casket

In this January issue we look at pre-revolutionary Russian silver and how much passes through our local auction houses

Martin McIlroy, from Bearnes, Hampton & Littlewood, delves into the world of pre-revolutionary Russian silver, sampling the more common objects that pass through provincial auction houses

This article is not about the Faberg company, synonymous for its highly decorative gold, silver and enamel objets d'art made for the Imperial Russian family. We have all read newspaper articles about world-record prices being fetched for Faberg eggs and the like. No, this article is about the more common pieces of Russian silver that pass through the major provincial auction houses. Most items of Russian silver that come under the hammer date from the late 18th century up until the Communist Revolution in 1917. The majority of the pieces are normally late-19th- and early-20th-century.

Prior to the revolution, the vast majority of Russians were living in serfdom. Despite this, Russia was not a backward country, it was well integrated with the rest of Continental Europe, Asia and the Far East. This brought to the silversmiths a wealth of objects, designs and techniques for inspiration for their craft. Moscow and St Petersburg attracted artists and artisans from France, Germany and many of the Scandinavian countries, especially Finland. Not only that, but Russian silver was exhibited at all the great exhibitions held in the European capitals as well as in America. It is not until the Communist Revolution in 1917 that the heyday of Russian silver came to an abrupt end.

So now we come to Russian silver itself, which, generally speaking, is not as pure as English silver. Sterling silver is 925 parts per 1,000, whereas Russian silver is only 875 parts per 1,000, and items to this standard are hallmarked with the number 84. Items that met the English standard and were probably meant for export to this country are stamped with the number 91. Other marks will include the town of origin, the assay master's mark (who tested the piece for purity) and the maker's mark. Prior to 1899 the assay master would also include the date he tested the piece. This makes 19th- century silver easy to date, but the maker is more difficult to identify as many had the same initials, which could be stamped in either Latin or Cyrillic script. So it is important to identify the town where the piece was made and from that the maker may be identified.

Designs in Russian silver broadly reflected the decorative tastes of the rest of Europe, from Gothic through to the naturalistic style of articles decorated with flower heads and foliage. Some items had a more traditional style and included a shoe-shaped drinking vessel called a kovsh, and eggs which could be either highly decorated with enamels or just plain silver. These were given by wealthier families at Easter, this being a major celebration in the Russian Orthodox Church.

Keeping away from Faberg and highly ornamental enamel objects, a simpler and more common form of enamelling is niello work. This form of decoration was also used in Japan, China, India, Persia and the Middle East. Niello is formed from mixing silver, copper, lead and sulphur. After heating it is cooled and crushed to a fine powder, then mixed with boracic and painted onto pre-engraved designs on the object. This is then fired, and when cool it is polished to leave a black, matt enamel design against a shiny silver background. Niello designs range from simple geometric patterns to views of major Russian cities such as St Petersburg or Moscow. Another traditional design depicts Russian sleighs known as troikas. These niello-decorated boxes are probably the most common items to pass through the auction room, their quality varying from fairly plain and boring to little masterpieces of the enameller's art.

An area that shows off the silversmith's art is in the decoration of icons. Icons were images of Christ, the Virgin Mary or saints and were kept in most houses to ward off the evil works of the devil. They were normally oil paintings on wooden boards and sometimes had a silver frame which enclosed the painted image, known as an oklad. These frames were often engraved with either a sunburst or a dove representing the Holy Spirit. The oklad would be fully hallmarked and there were certain companies who specialised in icon decoration.

Other items that have passed through our salerooms in the past four years include a pair of decorated silver and gilt vodka tumblers (charka), which dated from the late 18th century. These charka can vary from small (20ml) to large (120ml). The use of gilding, accentuating the decoration, helped them achieve 3,700. Another popular item of Russian silver that appears regularly are cigarette cases, and the example shown below is a naturalistic design of plain and simple form using gold to complement the silver and inset with a gemstone. Most of these cases date from the Art Nouveau period but are far more restrained than their Continental counterparts. The Art Nouveau movement, while strong in central and western Europe, had no great influence on the Russian silversmiths. The cigarette case illustrated achieved 400.

A Russian silver egg of plain design passed through our auction house and although not being from the Faberg company, it did highlight the importance of these Easter gifts. The egg unscrewed into two halves, which then converted into an egg cup. Contained within the egg was a silver spoon (in two pieces), which when screwed together formed an egg spoon. Although plain in design, this intricate set proved very popular with collectors of Russian silver and after fierce telephone bidding sold for 1,050.

A few of the reasons that Russian silver has become so popular over the past eight years are complex. Greater knowledge of the silversmiths and silver retailers has become more easily obtainable. Up until the fall of the Communist regime in Russia and Eastern Europe, fewer items of silver were available on the English market, but there has been a rise in the number of wealthy Russian collectors who are willing to repatriate Russian silver back to the motherland.

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