Collecting antiques can equal cultural survival

Wealthy Russians and Chinese buy antiques to recover pieces of their heritage.

courtesy of Jackson's International Auctioneers
Popular: An icon, and portrait, are examples of Russian art that, until recently, sold for high prices.
courtesy of Jackson's International Auctioneers
Popular: An icon, and portrait, are examples of Russian art that, until recently, sold for high prices.

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.

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."

With this kind of money involved, it's no wonder that modern-day Russian artists are rediscovering the traditional techniques involved in painting icons.

Russian Orthodox Church leaders take the stance that icons are intended purely for religious purposes and as such belong to the church, but in most cases the icons bought by individual collectors remain in private hands. Churches have also sold off expensive antique icons to pay for renovations to their property, buying newer – and less expensive – icons to replace them.

Governments recognize the dangers of losing culturally important antiques, so most nations have laws to prevent items of value that are more than 100 years old from being removed from the country. Many of the Chinese imperial pieces and Russian artifacts that show up at auctions in the West were taken out in the late 19th or early 20th centuries, before such restrictions were in place.

It is said that Josef Stalin himself ordered truckloads of Russian icons to be driven out of the Soviet Union and sold in the West to finance his ventures.

Today, collectors of Russian and Chinese antiques living outside those countries must contend with deep-pocketed émigrés and wealthy citizens attempting to buy back their heritage. Because many of these objects were forbidden, and, in the case of Russian icons, many were destroyed, their rarity also contributes to higher prices. As a result, secondary markets have opened up for contemporary art, especially from Asia.

"In some ways you could look at Chinese contemporary art as a new kind of export art," says Karina Corrigan, associate curator of Asian art at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Mass.

In earlier centuries, China and Japan headed the list of countries that produced goods aimed specifically at Western markets, called export ware. (The base of PEM's collection was formed by art brought back to Salem by sea captains – the original collectors – from the corners of the world.)

In the West, interest in primitive spirituality has made art and artifacts from countries such as India, Tibet, and Nepal increasingly popular, although, as Miller points out, the quality varies tremendously. Such art can range from tourist trinkets to temple altarpieces, and it's also difficult to establish the provenance – or history – of such objects, which can lead to ethical questions.

Recently, countries such as Greece and Italy have, with some success, requested the return of ancient artifacts from museums in England and the United States. Collectors in the 1800s and early 1900s – some well-intentioned and some not – amassed artifacts through means that would strike many people today as exploitative at worst and wrong-headed at best.

But an argument can also be made that many of these treasures would have been lost to war or ignorant regimes had not educated collectors ridden to the rescue.

Judith Miller says it would be impossible to repatriate all the objects that governments are asking to be returned. The difference with the Russians and Chinese is that "they are paying large sums to get these objects back."

It remains to be seen whether the Russians in particular can keep up the pace of bidding with the global economy in free fall. "The sales of Russian art at Sotheby's and Christie's last week were down 40 percent," says Jackson, the Russian art expert in Iowa. "We're starting to see a correction in the market."

Just as economic fortunes in the US are linked with those of other countries, the antiques market is intricately linked around the world. "The center of the antiques market is still the West, but it's becoming more global," says Miller.

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