Opulent Objects: Collecting Russian Revival Antiques

This Russian enamel and gilt silver covered chalice sold for $31,050 at auction 16 years ago. The late 19th-century chalice is rendered in the “Old Russian Style.” (Photo courtesy of Cowan Auctions, Inc., Cincinnati, Ohio)

The fall of Imperial Russia and the aftermath of the events of the 1917 Revolution resulted in one of the most far reaching dispersals of fine art, jewelry, furniture and objects d’art since the French Revolution. For generations prior to these cataclysmic events, Russian craftsmen had produced a profusion of the most opulent objects ever made, inspired by French, Italian, German and Asian motifs in enamel, gold, silver, platinum, jade and precious and semi-precious stones. This “Russian Touch” was applied to foreign designs that continue to fascinate casual museum visitors and serious connoisseurs alike.

One of the most collectible and desirable styles of Russian art is known as the Pan Slav or “Russian Revival.” The Pan Slav style, which uses enamels, was introduced in Kiev by the Byzantines in the 11th century. This style is based on two techniques, the first being “plique a jour,” which involves using a filigree enamel ornament with no backing, resulting in a stained-glass effect when exposed to light. The second technique, called “champleve,” is a process where enamels are poured into grooves already engraved on the surface of metal.

Pavel Ovchinnikov (1830-1888) was the champion of the Pan Slav enamels and is considered the second-most influential jeweler after Fabergé. He founded his design firm of silversmiths in Moscow in 1853 and by 1881 the firm employed 300 craftsmen. Upon his death, his two sons took over the business and managed the firm until 1917, when the Revolution brought the company to an end.

Ovchinnikov frequently displayed his creations in international exhibitions. His firm was well represented at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and also exhibited at the Paris World Fair in 1900, winning many awards. It was around this time that a worldwide interest in Old Russian style objects—dating back to the Byzantine Era—became highly desirable all over the world.

This Russian silver gilt and enamel sugar shovel and salt spoon, both with Klingert maker’s marks, would sell as a pair for $800 to $1,000. (Photo courtesy of Cowan Auctions, Inc., Cincinnati, Ohio)

This tankard, created by the firm of Pavel Ovchinnikov (Moscow) and composed of silver gilt enamel, circa 1890s, offers a floral ornament in filigree enamel colored in predominant shades of blue with accents in olive green, red, white and pink. (photo courtesy of Hillwood Museum and Gardens)

These objects were created as gifts from Russian officials for visiting foreign dignitaries who wished to present items that looked distinctly Russian. It is ironic that these techniques utilizing “plique a jour” and “champlevé” that are quintessentially viewed as Russian, actually originated in Byzantine.

This Russian silver gilt and enamel strainer, with aGustav Klingert maker’s mark, is valued between $700-$900. (Photo courtesy of Cowan Auctions, Inc., Cincinnati, Ohio)

A pair of Russian silver gilt and enamel tongs, also with a Klingert maker’s mark. This piece is valued between $500-$700. (Photo courtesy of Cowan Auctions, Inc., Cincinnati, Ohio)

Serious collectors of Pan Slav enamels should consider a visit to Hillwood Museum & Gardens in Washington, D.C. This museum houses America’s largest collection of Russian antiquities, which were assembled by Marjorie Merriwether Post and her third husband, Joseph Davies. Davies was ambassador to the Soviet Union during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration. Collectors of Pan Slav enamels should look for proper hallmarks and steer away from imitation Pan Slav, which is recognizable when the enamels are colored in a gaudy manner.

Dr. Wes Cowan is founder and owner of Cowan’s Auctions, Inc. in Cincinnati, Ohio. An internationally recognized expert in historic Americana, Wes stars in the PBS television series “History Detectives” and is a featured appraiser on “Antiques Roadshow.” He can be reached via email at info@historicamericana.com.


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