Arguably the most important artistic artifacts which spring forth from Russia are its icons. Icons first came to Russia in the late 10th century corresponding to Russia’s acceptance of Christianity as their main religion.
The Apostle Luke was recognized as the first iconographer, with his recreation of the image of Holy Theotokos that started early Christians in the practice of venerating an image. Icons must be created according to strict standards by the church (see Writing an Icon). In most cases, they have been sanctified and blessed inside the church by a priest. Icons are typically painted on wood with egg tempera and highlighted with gold leaf. Often may have a metal cover, known as an oklad or a riza, of gilt or silvered metal showcasing ornate workmanship and often embellished with enamel or set with semiprecious or precious stones. They often hung in the “krasny ugol” or “beautiful corner” of a Russian home.
To provide some quick perspective on the majority of the icons that one will encounter in public today, we have compiled some general statistics, based on what we have dealt with as an auction house, selling hundreds of icons yearly.
About 75% of the icons you will encounter on the market today will have been produced between the years 1800-1917. Another 23% will have been produced between the years 1700-1800, with the final 2% being produced before 1700.
Icons can be divided into three basic categories – those with images of Christ, those with The Mother of God (Virgin Mary) and those of various other Saints. When it comes to valuing antique Russian icons there are five main criteria which are considered so as to reach a value conclusion. They are as follows: age, quality, size, subject, and condition.
Although icons in their painted form are known in other cultures for centuries prior to their advent in Russia, it is the opinion of most historians that Russian icons reached an unprecedented height of cultural expression as compared to other countries which utilized icons for liturgical or for personal spiritual purposes. Russian icons which were produced roughly between the years 1350 to 1650 are considered valuable by their very age. This is important to note because in other cultures and indeed even in Russia itself, various other types of artifacts such as simple everyday pottery or small cast bronze crucifixes are not necessarily valuable because of their age because generally speaking, they are plentiful. Whereas painted icons because of the material on which they were produced (wood) did not often survive the ravages of time. Furthermore, they were often reused - often times an icon painted in the year 1500 was completely removed from the wood panel it was painted on and repainted 200-300 years later. Therefore, unaltered original icons from the medieval period are scarce and by the very virtue of their age, are valuable.
The impact of quality on value is fairly universal, the higher the quality of the craftsmanship, the more desirable to the collector and henceforth the more valuable. In Russian iconography, icons created closer to largely populated areas are generally worth more than those produced in the provinces. Sometimes this quality is so distinct it can be attributed regionally as being produced in a certain city often referred to as a school.
Generally speaking, when it comes to the value of Russian icons the larger the icon, the more valuable the icon becomes. While there is no average size when it comes to Russian icons, it is fair to say that the most likely size one is to encounter on the international market would be somewhere in the 12.5 inch x 10.5 inch range. All other factors considered (age, quality, subject, and condition), a larger size can increase the value tremendously. Generally speaking, larger icons which were often made for public veneration were executed by better trained craftsmen and subsequently their quality is often higher than normal. Therefore, it is not unusual that larger icons bring more money.
In general, subjects which have universal appeal such as a Madonna and Child (referred to in Orthodoxy as Mother of God) are more desirable and henceforth more valuable than images of say, for example, obscure saints. Icons which depict subjects related to major church Feast days are also generally more desirable. Icons which depict saints whose names are popular also command higher prices on the international market. And lastly, rare subjects which are less frequently encountered can command a higher price based solely on the scarcity of the subject depicted.
Unlike other art forms, a certain amount of wear and tear is acceptable on Russian icons and does not necessarily impact value. This is especially true for the older icons. Paint missing from the border or the gold leaf background being absent does not necessarily reduce the value. In other words, it is accepted that older icons will exhibit wear and tear commiserate to their age. However, icons that are in excellent condition without question bring more money than similar examples in less favorable condition. Although, it must also be pointed out that icons which exhibit extensive restoration are worth less than those which do not.
If you have any questions about a Russian icon or would like a free market evaluation of an icon (or any other art), feel free to contact Jackson’s through our “free evaluation” link (here) or by emailing info to (insert auction services link). We would be happy to be of assistance.