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Tales of Antiquity.
By Svetlana Kononova Special to Russia Profile. 04/04/2011
While Many Russian Antiques Were Moved Abroad 15 Years Ago, They Are Now Being Brought Back Due to Growth on the Domestic Collectibles Market.
The international antique market is now slowly recovering from the global financial crisis. But market players estimate that in the next few decades, the main volume of sales might move from well-established markets of Western Europe to those of developing countries. One of the most promising antique markets is in Russia.
According to a recent report “The Global Art Market in 2010: Crisis and Recovery,” published by the European Fine Art Foundation (TEFAF), the global art and antiques market has increased by 51 percent to $68 billion last year, after a dramatic decline to $44 billion in 2009. Recently, the antique market has boomed in Asia and especially in China, where the number of wealthy individuals willing to invest money in collectibles is growing every year.
Russia’s share of the antique market is still quite small; experts estimate it as less than three percent of the global market. But it has great potential for growth. At present there are only about 200 companies that specialize in the sale of antiques in Moscow, both big auction houses and small shops. Another 80 salons can be found in St. Petersburg, and a few dozen are in the rest of the country. For comparison, London alone has 40 auction houses and more than 2,000 antique shops.
In Russia, the definition of “antique” is different from the rest of the world. On the international market, items are qualified as “antiques” if they are older than 100 years, while in Russia any rarity over 50 years old is classified as such. To be considered an antique, an item should reflect the trends of the time when it was made and have historical, cultural and artistic value. Experts estimate the legal antique market in Russia at $800 million to $1 billion, but the total volume of the antique market, including the so-called gray and black sectors, is much larger – up to $1.8 billion. Interest in antiques has been growing in the country for several reasons: economic recovery has lead to a growth in incomes, and it is becoming fashionable to collect rarities and to learn to appreciate their value. “In mid-2009 the antique market in Russia decreased by 70 percent due to economic decline. It still hasn’t fully recovered, and the prices are still lower than before the financial crisis. But the market is growing, so now is a good time to invest in antiques and in art,” said Oleg Stetsyura, the president of Gelos, the largest Russian auction house that conducts about 120 auctions every year.
The Russian antique market is rather peculiar. Two types of items that are most in demand are old books and military equipment. “Books are convenient to store. While antique furniture or fine art pieces have to be placed in big houses decorated in certain historical styles, books need little space,” Stetsyura explained. “The interest in military antiques may be due to several factors: firstly, Russia is a country with a rich military history. But the number of rare military items is very limited, because many valuables were moved abroad after the Russian Revolution and during World War II. Therefore, military antiques are in high demand. Moreover, old weapons are prestigious gifts,” he added. Military collectibles end up at antique shops and with dealers in different ways: from flea markets, battlefields, families and collectors. The prices are also quite different – items priced from $1,000 up to $ 2,000 are of interest to the general public and are the most popular at the moment. Rarities that cost tens of thousands of dollars are only purchased by professional collectors. The most expensive items cost around $100,000. “There are now three popular kinds of military antiques in Russia. The first are relics of World War II, including cold weapons and guns, uniforms, crosses, medals, orders and other remnants of the German Third Reich. Then there are the same kinds of antiques but from the Imperial Russian army, and lastly there are items that belonged to the Red Army. Professionals call these groups ‘Reich,’ ‘Tsar’ and ‘Red army,’” said Dmitry Bushmakow, the director of Leibstandarte, the largest Russian company that specializes in military antiques. “The military antique market was badly hit by the economic crisis. At some point the whole system stopped working. But now the market has recovered. However, many exclusive items are currently not for sale: the owners are waiting for the pre-crisis price levels,” Bushmakow added. A typical antique collector in Russia would be hard to describe, since many prefer to keep their expensive hobby in secret. The one thing that is certain is that most of them are men with high incomes. The share of women in the number of antique collectors is less than ten percent. “There are several groups of people who are interested in antiques. The first group buy it as gifts. The second purchase collectibles to decorate their homes or flats – they want to live in a beautiful environment with a historical meaning. The third consider antiques as investments, because they know that their value is always growing,” Stetsyura said. “Some of our customers are lawyers and governmental officials, others are athletes and show business people,” Bushmakow elaborated.
While in the 1990s many antiques were removed from Russia despite the existence of a law that prohibits the export of items older than 100 years, experts now point out the opposite trend. The prices of antiques in Russia and in the West are on the same level, so there is no sense in breaking the law for unprofitable resale. At the same time, Russian collectors are ready to pay for both local and foreign antique items. “The idea of selling ‘old junk’ abroad belongs to the first Soviet government. Antiques have been taken out of Russia by the government and by emigrants since the 1920s. In the 1990s, we witnessed the second wave of such removal. But now items that were sold abroad for pennies are returning to Russia with a big price tag. This is especially true for ‘Czarism era’ items. For example, the simplest St. George’s Cross, which could be bought for just $12 15 years ago, now costs $400 to $500 in Russia," Bushmakow said.
The prospects of the Russian antique market seem optimistic. “Probably, the price of antiques in Russia will reach pre-crisis level only by 2016,” Stetsyura said. “New areas of antique sales will develop. Some collectors are now showing increased interest in old visit cards and the correspondence of historical figures.
For example, when we auctioned off Napoleon Bonaparte’s letter to Josephine, there was enormous competition.”