Collecting Russian icons and imperial treasures

Lacey Greer, now an antique dealer, originally studied Russian ballet. But instead of becoming a ballerina, she married, had two children, and settled in Tulsa, Okla.

That change of direction in her career did not diminish her interest in Russia. While she was studying dance in college and later with Mia Slavenska in New York City, she became fascinated with the culture and art forms of Russia. Even as a teen-ager, after learning that classical ballet had its roots in Russia, she had begun to study its turbulent history.

To continue this interest after her marriage, she organized a study group of women friends called the St. Petersburg Circle. It was on a research trip to England that she purchased the first object in her collection, a book of the Russian gospels encased in brass.

Soon afterward, she began her travels in the United States, France, Germany, and England to acquire her small but substantial inventory of Russian icons, enamels, and imperial memorabilia - a collection that includes original royal family photographs, as well as czarist papers, autographs, and costumes of the period. Then she began to sell the choice pieces she had collected.

Mrs. Greer has no shop, but she participates in at least 10 antique shows a year in such cities as Chicago; Dallas; Houston; Denver; Jackson, Miss.; New Orleans, and Miami. People discover her unusual booth, billed ''Treasures of Imperial Russia,'' with no little surprise, since she is the only such dealer on her antique show circuit.

''I cater to a highly specialized group of collectors,'' she admits, ''but interest is growing as people get more exposure and learn more about the objects. That is why I spend a lot of time explaining things to curious onlookers.'' She deals with clients in many states by telephone or mail and conducts a private showing in Washington each year.

''You might not realize it,'' Mrs. Greer explained in her booth at the Tri Delta Charity Antiques Show in Dallas this spring, ''but in almost every large city there is, lurking somewhere, a small group of serious Russophiles.''

Washington is by far her best market, she says, ''because it is an international city and because the Marjorie Merriwether Post collection has stimulated so much interest over the years.''

Mrs. Greer collects icons from the 16th century through the early 20th century. Her prices for these venerated pieces vary from $1,200 for a late 19 th-century icon to $20,000 for an exquisite 17th-century icon from the Hann collection. Icons, she says, continued the Byzantine tradition of religious painting, but they became the highest art form to come out of imperial Russia. Today, in her estimation, they are highly undervalued in the West.

Icons are close enough to early European Christian painting, she says, to appear to an untrained eye as primitive. ''But there is nothing primitive about them. They are extremely complex. Everything in the painting is symbolic. I think I could study them for the rest of my life and never fully comprehend them.''

The Russian enamels she offers - including spoons, bowls, and the like - range in price from $500 to $7,000 and were primarily made in the 19th century, during the time of Faberge and his contemporaries.

Mrs. Greer has done all her study and research independently. She says the extensive library she has acquired has taken her almost as long to collect as the pieces themselves. She buys chiefly from private sources and from other dealers. She buys some memorabilia from elderly White Russian people who are selling treasured possessions.

One such item in her booth was the costume worn by Admiral Volkov to a ball at the Winter Palace given in 1903 by the Czar.

Mrs. Greer made a special trip to New York to see the Faberge exhibits at her favorite shop, A la Vieille Russie on Fifth Avenue, and at the Cooper Hewitt Museum. This summer she will have another extraordinary adventure. She and her husband, Robert, will go to Russia for the first time. Having steeped herself in Russian lore for so long, for her it will be a kind of going home.

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