With the opening of Russia in 1990, the art of Russian lacquer miniature painting has gained worldwide appreciation and these small treasures are highly sought after by collectors. As a result, many Russian boxes are now being produced by untrained people using inferior materials such as wood, poured acrylic, or pressed sawdust-board called argalite. These imitation lacquer miniatures are being sold on the streets of Russia and through venues like eBay. Many of these fakes have the name of one of the four villages and even the name of a well known artist added to fool the uneducated buyer. Educating yourself about the art and buying from reputable dealers will ensure that any purchase you make will be of high quality.
Authentic Russian lacquer boxes, from the four traditional villages that produce them, should be painted by traditional techniques on a papier-mâché base. The papier-mâché process, which takes an average of six weeks, ensures the most stable medium - it will not warp, does not expand and contract with temperature, and has a linseed oil base which renders it impervious to moisture.
Tips to authenticate a true Russian lacquer miniature
Sight: Examine the box and painting. Is the painting "flat" or does it have the depth of field of true miniature art, achieved by the process of "layering" many applications of paint and lacquer? The box should not have seams that show. Look for a grid pattern on the bottom or sides of the box that indicates a machine pressed argalite box. Examine the painting with a magnifying glass to identify "cutouts," and the many tiny "dots" that make up a photo decoupage. Look for any cracks in the lacquer.
Weight: The weight of the box is another clue since papier-mâché is usually lighter than wood or pressed argalite for the same size, wall thickness, etc... Take the time to handle a few authentic boxes and you will learn to feel the difference. ** see Note.
Sound: Tap the bottom of the box with a fingernail or tap the lid gently closed. Wood boxes sound "sharp" or "harsh," and plastic or argalite also gives off a louder "click" when tapped. The sound of real papier-mâché will seem muted and soft when compared with nontraditional materials. ** see Note.
Smell: After about 6 months of aging, the papier-mâché begins to have a distinct odor from its linseed oil base. Open the box and smell the inside. If it has the rich, almost "antique" smell of linseed oil, then it is likely genuine. This is a good test and you should learn to identify this smell. ** see Note.
Style: Learn to identify the style characteristics of the four villages. Each of the four traditional centers of Russian lacquer miniature painting has a school that trains its artists passing on traditions and techniques that result in a distinct "village" style.
** Note: some high quality papier-mâché blanks are now being made without the clay primer and instead are being soaked in a solution of modern automotive lacquer. This high-tech lacquer is extremely hard and durable, allowing for boxes with thinner walls. This must be taken into consideration when attempting to determine the authenticity of a newer Russian lacquer box as this modern process results in a box with a weight and sound that differs significantly from boxes of traditional construction. It is therefore more important than ever that you purchase from a reputable dealer who will guarantee the quality and durability of the materials used in the box.
Marks and Signatures: Certain customs have developed in each of the four centers of lacquer miniature production related to identification.
In Fedoskino the village name is normally written at the left or center lower margin of the painting with the year of completion next to it. In the right lower margin is the artist's signature. As is common with traditional oil paintings, the painters of Fedoskino usually sign their works in a color that is complementary to the painting. Sometimes it is difficult to make out the signature as it can blend in with the edge of the painting.
Palekh artists normally sign and date their work in the same arrangement as those of Fedoskino. In Palekh, however, the signature is done in fine gold against the black (or other color) lacquer, creating high contrast.
Mstera and Kholui artists also sign their work on the right lower margin with the village name usually on the left corner or center margin. The paintings of Mstera and Kholui, however, are usually not dated. Instead, the painting's title frequently appears between the village name and the signature, or is written along the top margin of the painting. Like Palekh, the signatures are usually done in gold.
NOTE on some boxes the artist's information can be found on the bottom of the box or under the lid.
A note on numbering boxes: On lacquer boxes produced in the official workshops of Fedoskino and Palekh there is frequently a number near the village name. Because the demand for papier mache boxes is so great, each blank box produced in these official (formerly government run) factories, is given an inventory number to make sure that the boxes aren't being pilfered. The number has no relation to the painting, only to the blank papier mache box. A box with #1240 written in the margin simply means that the papier mache blank is number 1240 of the boxes of that same shape and size produced in that year. Each of those 1240 boxes may have a completely different painting, and the numbering starts over again with the new year.
In summary, use the above tips to help identify which lacquer boxes are authentic and which may be fake. Remember, however, it is not always possible to be absolutely certain. Your best guarantee will be the reliability and knowledge of your supplier. How a Lacquer Box is Made