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  • Marc Melich-Mautner

The market for Russian icons

"The eternal truths of faith shimmer and glow behind the symbol and through the picture." enthused the German theologian Wilhelm Bousset more than a hundred years ago. Probably the Protestant was not thinking specifically of icons, but for the Orthodox Church the religiously consecrated wooden images are actually a window into the spiritual world In this materialistic world - in other words: on the art market - it is less about spiritual and more about financial values, and in this regard hardly any other niche shows such dramatic developments as icons.

Russian icons became popular in the 1970s when the West discovered this spiritually powerful art form. Prices rose and rose, from a few hundred to hundreds of thousands of dollars, pounds and deutschmarks. The recession in the 1980s braked this boom abruptly, and only after the fall of the Berlin Wall when also the Orthodox Church in Russia regained validity, moved with the economic boom prices back on. "At that time, many wealthy Russians in Europe and the USA bought icons in order to bring them back to the" motherland ". Ironically, most of these icons had been sold to the West by Stalin in the 1930s for hard currency. For enamelled icons from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, especially those by famous artists such as Pawel Ovtschinnikow or Ivan Klebnikow, six-figure sums were paid again at international auctions around the turn of the millennium - until the next economic crisis. Since then, the wheat has been separated from the chaff: Average goods are left behind, while high-quality icons in good condition and of outstanding provenance continue to sell well.

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