Collecting antiques can equal cultural survival
Wealthy Russians and Chinese buy antiques to recover pieces of their heritage.
People who collect antiques do so for many reasons: to own a piece of the past, to learn about their history, and to impress friends and neighbors. But for those living in cultures that were once torn apart by political revolution, collecting today becomes an act not only of patriotism but also of cultural survival.Skip to next paragraph
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It's too soon to know what treasures can be saved in Iraq or Sudan or other war-torn parts of the world. But the 20th century provides two striking examples of cultures that suffered through repressive governments, and now people are attempting to buy back pieces of their fractured heritage.
Russia and China each saw the rise of communism and the demise of traditional culture. Churches and monasteries were closed, and citizens were ordered to burn books and icons. Traditional craftsmanship was brushed aside in favor of rapid industrialization.
Fast forward to the Russia and China of the 21st century, where the old socialist models have given way to more capitalist enterprise. Before the 1990s, many people had very little money; now a few people control a great deal of money. Russian oligarchs and Chinese businesspeople frequently have emerged as the top bidders in their respective antiques markets.
Those two markets have blossomed since 2000, according to auction companies, although some of the luster has worn off in the past several months due to the global economic downturn.
"The natural tendency is to trace one's ancestry; not even revolution can take that desire away," says Judith Miller, the British expert and author behind "Miller's Antiques Encyclopedia," who also appears on the BBC version of "Antiques Roadshow."
The Russians, banned from owning works of religious art for many years, are now bidding aggressively for objects venerated by the Russian Orthodox Church.
The Chinese, on the other hand, favor unique art made in the time of their emperors. This interest causes "a ripple effect" in both these markets, says Ms. Miller, and drives up prices worldwide.
At the same time, the Russians and Chinese have decades of misinformation standing between them and an understanding of important aspects of their past.
"There's a thirst in Russians to rebuild their identity nationally and spiritually," says James Jackson, president of Jackson's International Auctioneers and Appraisers in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Mr. Jackson specializes in Russian art. He sees a revived interest in the Russian Orthodox Church – at least on the surface. Like President Dmitry Medvedev, more people are attending services, he says, but their comments reveal an ignorance that was caused by decades of official atheism. "When I said to them, 'That's good, you're baptizing your children,' they didn't understand the religious purpose behind it, but said, 'Well, we see other people doing it, so it must be a good thing,' " says Jackson.
The interest in collecting religious icons – depictions of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist, and numerous saints – is something of a fad, he says. Although genuine spiritual yearning exists, the sentiment is somewhat misplaced in the case of icons.
American collector Gordon Lankton agrees. Mr. Lankton, who made his fortune in plastics molding, opened his Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Mass., in 2006, to showcase his collection – the largest outside Russia.
In his travels to Moscow, he has met a number of wealthy collectors, whom he considers more interested in icons as status symbols than aids to prayer. Once, while waiting for a wealthy businessman in the lobby of an office building, Lankton met a woman who had three icons for sale. When the businessman appeared, "he spent 30 seconds looking at each icon, and then turned away, saying, 'I'll take them all.' I later asked her how much he paid for what I thought were not very interesting icons, and she told me $250,000 each."