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Tips to Identify Real vs. Fake Lacquer Boxes

With the breakup of the old USSR and the lack of Government controls in Russia, we are seeing a proliferation of lacquer boxes on the market that are not made by traditional methods and means. Most of these are not made by trained lacquer miniaturists, but by outsiders that want to “knock-off” the art form and profit from the rising public demand for these boxes. Many are outright counterfeits, even to the point of false signatures of famous artists; or quickly done decoupage techniques. These fake boxes are available on the streets in Russia for $5 to $10 each, and passed-off in the U.S. for $100s!


Most important, we are seeing boxes painted not on the traditional papier-mache, but instead on wood, poured acrylic, or a pressed sawdust-board called argillite. Authentic boxes, from the four traditional villages that produce them, should be painted by traditional techniques on a papier-mâché base. (The papier-mâché process quarantees 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). We have perfect Fedoskino boxes, done over 150 years ago!! Quality endures! So, how can you tell the difference?


1)       Visually examine the box and the painting. Is it a “flat” painting, or does it have the wonderful depth of field of real boxes, achieved by the process of “layering” many applications of paint and lacquer? There should not be “seams” that show—real papier-mâché is formed with very few actual joints. Look for the telltale “grid-pattern” on the bottom or sides that sometimes shows on an argillite box. This is the track of the machine that forms or presses the sawdust used to make these fakes! Also, examine with a magnifying glass to identify “cutouts”, and the many tiny “dots” that might make up a photo decoupage.


2)       Weight of the box is another clue- papier-mâché is usually lighter than wood or pressed argillite, for the same size, wall thickness, etc.


3)       Sound of the box when gently tapped with the fingernail or tapping the lid is another giveaway of material. Wood boxes sound “sharp” or “harsh”; and plastic or argillite also gives off a louder “click” when tapped, than the muted and dampened sound of real papier-mâché. The sound of papier-mâché is muted, softer, and sort of dampened compared to other non-traditional materials.


4)       Smell is also important! After about 6 months of aging, the papier-mâché box begins to have the distinct odor of its linseed oil base. Open the box and smell the inside—if it has the rich almost “antique” smell of linseed, it is real. This is a true test, and you should learn to identify this smell. (You will always know a true lacquer-box collector or other expert, because they are always smelling boxes!)


5)       Finally, as with any fine art form, you can learn the individual artists and villages, who have distinctly recognizable styles- - plus every box should be signed individually by the artist!


In summary, use the above tips to help identify which boxes are authentic, and which may be fake. But remember, it is not always possible to be absolutely certain. Your best guarantee may be the reliability of your supplier—we absolutely guarantee every Russian Lacquer Miniature that we sell!!