Russian art and particularly the hand painted lacquer boxes are extremely collectible. I have sought these out and built up several that are among my most treasured possessions. Although the designs are exquisite to look at, it’s not just about what they look like but also the story behind them and also the hunt of acquiring them that gives true value and meaning to my collection. If you want to start building up your own collection, there are some things that you should know before you start buying – and I’m here to help you out.
When you go on vacation and travel around the world, it is of course wonderful to come home with some beautiful souvenirs. We tend to buy things that appeal to us greatly at the time. However, with these particular collectibles, it does help to know a bit about them before you buy. Great care should be taken when making a purchase from an online site such as eBay because photos can sometimes be a little deceiving – and you want to be sure that you are happy with your new acquisition.
Miniature Lacquered Box with a Folksy Art Styling
My love for these started in Budapest
Collecting Russian Lacquer Boxes
Back in the winter of 1997, I went on a vacation to Budapest which was somewhere I’d never visited before. I just loved all the festive Christmas Kiosks and the amazing myriad of food, gifts and decorations that were on display. The snow was falling and it all seemed highly magical.
The Central or Grand Market in Budapest is just like a massive warehouse filled with kiosks and outside in alleyways are a few more of these and I stumbled across one which was selling these beautiful lacquered boxes. The amazingly intricate designs intrigued me and I was very keen to purchase one. However, the friend who was with me at the time was insistent that I should not buy anything that was Russian (this was likely because she was bitter about the whole communist regime where she lived) and so I passed on the chance then to get one. I’ve never forgotten one design in particular that had two foxes on it and looked like it was out of the pages of a classic fairy tale.
The Four Schools for this Style of Art
Palekh, Fedoskino, Kholui, and Mstera make up the four basic Schools of Style for this particular art form and they are actually from different locations and areas in Russia. They have iconic styles of painting and weave in scenes from the countryside and nature; stories, folk and fairy tales; history and historical figures.
Paper Mache is the base of how traditional Russian lacquer boxes are made and this combines a whole process of using cardboard which is rolled and shaped while wet. After a quite lengthy drying out process, these bases are then lacquered and painted and then lacquered again. They are normally finished off traditionally with a coating of black over the outside and red on the inside before painting by hand.
The hand painting can be very laborious and time consuming. The whole process requires great skill and patience because some of the most detailed designs take as long as a year to create. The artists from all the schools are trained in a specific style and use particular types of paints too. They all use gold leaf which provides the intricate scroll work adorning the borders and sometimes you can see Mother of Pearl used too.
The four art or style centers are:
1. Fedoskino – This originated back in the 18th Century and is the oldest of the styles and also the most collectible too. Fedoskino styling is realistic with a use of some vibrant colored oil paints which are often applied up in several layers. Sometimes you will see shimmering, glowing or even sparkling effects under parts of the background which has been made using gold or silver leaf or Mother of Pearl.
2. Palekh – This styling came about around 1923. Like the remaining two centers, they use egg tempra paints. They work in an old and traditional style of Russian Orthodox Icon Painting. Many of these Icon painters came into this style school after the whole Revolution left them without any work.
Palekh paintings are well known for having some rich golden shading along with very delicate and intricate designs. The scenes depicted normally cover the entire lid and sides of these boxes or anything else that is being painted.
3. Kholui – This is the newest of the style schools or centers and the originating artists first attempted to model their style based upon the what they have learned from Icon Painting with a newer influence of Palekh and Mstera. This center became recognized in 1959 for the backgrounds which were cherry, red and green instead of just the standard black colors.
This particular styling is currently best known for using a large percentage of a blue-green color palette and lots of different hues of green. This color usage is one of the most distinguishing features of this authentic Kholui style.
4. Mstera – this type of styling is characterized very much by characters who come from history, literature, folklore and real life. They use temperas which is mixed with egg for the paints and most of the finished pieces are then signed in gold by the actual artist along with the name given to the item and the Village where this School of Style is located.
Trademarks of these pieces include short and squat painted characters, warm colorings, a real depth in the landscape backgrounds which often have blue dales in the back and a nice, subtle pattern for the frame which is worked in gold. These elements are rather typical features of Mstera lacquered items and miniatures.
Look for Name of Artist, School of Style, and Name of Painting
Discover More on Russian Folk Art: Books available from Amazon
If you enjoy this art form, you may want to discover how you can paint your own boxes. The books I am recommending below on Russian Folk Art show the techniques and the styles that make these collectible miniatures so popular. Both fairy tales and folk are are just some of the popular themes used to make wonderful scenes painted rather painstakingly by these talented Russian artists.
With this book, you can learn the techniques that you need to know in order to make your own version of a Russian box, or other similar art project.
This is another great book on Russian Folk art that you can learn from.
Lacquered Box from Prague
Partial Collection of Russian Boxes and Trinkets
Authentic Russian Collectible Lacquer Boxes
If you are keen on starting to collect these stunning Russian lacquer painted boxes and miniatures, there are some things to bear in mind before you begin to purchase any and especially if you are looking for more collectible or valuable pieces. Remember that part of building up your own collection will depend on what your own preferences are and whether you really do love a piece or not. It’s not a bad decision to buy from a newer artist who does not belong to one of the four main Schools of Style, if you actually love the piece. If you like it, you should buy it and enjoy your new purchase.
Like most collectible items, there are many fakes and poorer quality items flooding the market. You get many cheap and knock-off imitations at Discount Stores and sometimes they even come free along with some tea. However, these are not going to be the authentic and painstakingly hand-painted boxes which Russia is well known for.
You will find the four main Schools or Centers of Art (Palekh, Fedoskino, Kholui, and Mstera) located near to Moscow in Russia – each in a different village.
Other countries, apart from Russia, also make these miniature boxes but you will discover that the styles are different. When I visited Prague, I found one that I really liked and I purchased it knowing full well that it wasn’t Russian. It had Prague depicted on the front and I was keen to buy it as a wonderful memento and souvenir of my trip there.
Does it matter that this purchase is not highly sought after or collectible? Not to me!
How to Clean the Hand Painted Boxes
Where to buy a Genuine Russian Lacquered Box
I have noticed while on vacations and traveling to Europe that you can find these boxes in pretty much any capital city that you visit. There are also boutiques and shops that specialize in selling them which you can discover even in the USA. I have been to one of these shops in Portland, Oregon that had some really beautiful pieces for sale – and they had price tags to match the exquisiteness too. You can search for places that sell these near where you live.
There is no substitute for buying these in person and being able to look and even touch the items to examine them more closely. Images on the Internet are a lot harder to make good decisions from – and be aware that photographs may be taken to hide parts that the seller does not want you to see.
You can of course buy these from eBay. However, take extra care with this approach. Make sure to ask questions in order to determine the knowledge of the seller, check out their reputation and feedback from other buyers and do check out the return policy as well in case you are not happy and need to return it for a refund.
Detailed Lacquer Boxes can be quite Valuable
When you are traveling abroad to find these, watch out for shops that are not of the the large Walmart style variety of souvenir shop. That is unless you happen to see a design that you really love and really don’t care that it is by one of the Master Painters or from a particular School of Style. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with purchasing a design that you just love the look of. It is, after all, your collectible and you can decide what it is that you want to bring home and display.
This is a really fun hobby that you can get much pleasure from, I know I do. I hope you have enjoyed seeing the photos showing off designs from my own collection and that you’ve found the content to be useful to you or entertaining. Do leave any comments for me below.
Images by Kathy McGraw