Soviets -- in iconoclastic move -- selling art treasures

It glowed softly in my hands -- a 19th-century icon of Saint Seraphim, beautifully clear, the head set against a background of gold leaf. "That's 464 rubles," the woman behind the counter said, "but you must pay in hard currency." That made it $721.

It was an astonishing moment. This was no black-market, hole-in-the-wall deal, no quick pickup of an icon that could not be exported because of Soviet laws governing antiques.

This, for the first time in memory here, was an open, aboveboard sale of valuable icons by the Soviet government in Moscow. Mostly 19th century (not as valuable as older ones, but rare nonetheless), each is described and authenticated by a typed certificate signed by experts.

With the certificate are two black-and-white photos of the icon -- and the typed document also grants permission to take the icon out of the country.

It adds up to one of the more extraordinary results of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games -- an effort to earn precious foreign exchange by selling off painted icons, as well as antique samovars and metal icons, to foreign tourists.

Privately, some Moscow art lovers are upset. "We are selling off our national heritage," said one sadly. "I know they are only 19th century. But that period had its masters, too, and if we sell them off, we will have a gap in our heritage."

Apparently he did not know that the Soviet government sells under contract icons to shops in Helsinki and Vienna and also authorizes sales in London. This is believed to be the first time however, that sales have been made here in Moscow.

Western residents here report they are suddenly being turned away from "kommissioni" (secondhand) stores in Moscow, where Westerners regularly browse for prerevolutionary items. They believe officials want all foreigners now to buy at the new icon salesroom.

The well-lit, spacious room is to the right of the main entrance of the entrance hall of the new central house of artists (Dom Khudozhnika) on the main Ring Road opposite the entrance of Gorky Park.

Prices are steep. The Soviets are out to earn what they can. And the tax on taking out an object d'art is 100 percent. Sources say that 100 percent is incorporated on the price tags -- which also carry smiling likenesses of the Olympic Games mascot, Misha the bear.

Originally about 100 icons painted on wood here were displayed against one wall of the room. When I walked in a few days later, only about 50 were left.

The offer is strictly limited: The shop closes Aug. 10 and will probably be cleaned out long before then.

I looked at a small icon of Mary and Jesus, in a wooden frame with a glass cover, selling for 354 rubles ($550). A large, painted icon showing a series of scenes from the Bible in rich golds and browns was 3,500 rubles ($5,440).

A metal crucifix used by a breakaway movement from the Russian Orthodox Church called the Old Believers, cost 191 rubles ($300). The blue enamel of the sky was still in good condition. Sources familiar with such antiques said later the price appeared to be one of the better bargains on offer.

A metal travelers' icon, hinged in three sections, showing Biblical scenes, was 872 rubles ($1,355). Noblemen would pray before it when traveling far from a church.

Set into the wall were some stunning samovars: $1,000 for one highly polished brass beauty, and $1,524 for a larger model in a different shape. They bore the circular makers' stamps in the metal, denoting the genuine article.

Another Soviet art lover agreed that the sale had been staged to earn foreign currency, which Moscow uses to buy grain, technology, and much else besides from the outside world.

But he also gave another reason: "Foreigners smuggle our icons out through customs," he said, "so the government decided to sell them."

Back in the parquet-floored salesroom a tourist ran his hand cross an antique brass dish used for making jam. Called a "taz" in Russian, it was selling for $ 212 -- and it would not be on display for long.

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