The year was 1888 and the world was in shock. Russia had very narrowly avoided a national tragedy: Emperor Alexander III, his wife Empress Maria Feodorovna and their children had been travelling on the Imperial train when it derailed in an horrific accident near Borki. A total of 21 members of the retinue were killed, more than 30 were injured, and yet the Imperial family, who were feasting in the dining car, remained totally unscathed.
To commemorate this miraculous escape, numerous icons were presented to the Emperor and his family, including one of Christ Pantocrator, made by the famous workshop Ovchinnikov in Moscow in 1884, given by the Imperial retinue four years later. Sotheby’s sold it at the end of November for £253,250 – a price achieved for its quality, provenance and story. The buyer was rumoured to be a Russian collector.
Indeed, Russian collectors have transformed the market for icons over the past five to 10 years, their passion sparked by two major selling exhibitions in Moscow, in 2003 and 2008, organised by the collector Viktor Bondarenko. It is their interest in 19th-century pieces, especially those with an oklad – the metal, often silver cover that protects the work from candle flames, and which is also seen to be a gift to the icon itself – that has driven up prices. Simon Morsink, who runs Amsterdam-based Jan Morsink Ikonen, specialists in Russian icons, highlights that potential buyers drawn to icons with oklads often favour those “made by well-known jewellers, such as Fabergé, Khlebnikov and Ovchinnikov”.
Until the Bondarenko exhibitions, icons were seen to be outside the mainstream art market, but rising prices are now giving them a higher profile. They are by no means only for those with the deep pockets of an oligarch, however: entry level for a well‑preserved example is between £3,000 and £5,000. They can be divided roughly into three periods: medieval, covering the 15th and 16th centuries; intermediate, the 17th and 18th centuries; and late, the 19th and early 20th centuries. The very earliest can fetch hundreds of thousands of pounds.
“My clients have traditionally been Europeans or Americans who have seen icons in Russia or studied medieval art, but now they encompass Russian collectors,” says Richard Temple, an authority on the subject who has run The Temple Gallery, now in London’s Holland Park, since 1959. “Icons are essentially medieval art. Some traditionalists in Russia refused to allow western elements to come into the style, so they are flatter with greater realism, although in the late 19th century some painters began to introduce pre‑Raphaelite qualities. These are the ones now prized by Russian collectors; Europeans prefer the earlier pieces.”
Temple’s passion for icons was conceived at the age of 17, in 1954, when he bought one in the long-defunct junk shop Louis Meyer in London’s Cecil Court for £11. They certainly exercise a fascination for those who have fallen under their spell. John McCarthy is a former Australian ambassador to the United States, Japan and Indonesia and high commissioner to India; now an international-relations consultant, he has been collecting icons since the late 1980s. “The first one I bought was of a 19th-century Mother of God for a couple of hundred dollars in a market in Warsaw. Then, a year or so later, I bought a better and more expensive icon of St Nicholas from 1700, which cost £1,000.” He now owns over 50 pieces.
Fellow collector Daniel Johnsons, a pharmacist based in Antwerp, who has built up an 80-strong collection since 1999, is drawn in by the role of icons beyond that of art. “They have a religious feeling, somewhere between earth and heaven,” he says. “One day I bought an icon of the Virgin and when I took the paper off it was so emotional I wept.”
Collectors tend to be divided by the era they are interested in, but there are innumerable subdivisions within these periods, too, explains Kent Russell, the CEO and curator of the Massachusetts-based Museum of Russian Icons, founded in 2006 by the industrialist Gordon B Lankton; it is the most significant collection of its kind in North America and one of the largest outside Russia. “The most common and most prized categories of icons are Christ, the Mother of God, the saints and the feast scenes,” he says. “But there are countless names of types of poses, such as the Vladimir Mother of God and the Kazan Mother of God. There are also different types of schools, such as the Palekh, the area associated with lacquered boxes. A group of collectors treasure that aesthetic – miniature and highly detailed.”
The saints’ days can turn up oddities. London-based MacDougall’s Auctions, the only fine-art auction house to specialise exclusively in Russian art, recently sold an icon of Saint Andrew of Crete and the prophet Hosea, from about 1900, for £3,900. “It’s unusual to see this pair together,” says MacDougall’s icon cataloguer Helen McIldowie-Jenkins. “But they have the same feast day – October 17.”
And that was the day in 1888 that Emperor Alexander and his family had their train crash, which is extremely likely to have been the inspiration for this icon. “Be careful,” Temple warns putative icon collectors. “Once you’re bitten by the bug, there’s no cure.”