Collectors’ Heaven – Izmailovo
By Marina Somers
Photos by Stas Arkhangelski
This is a story of an addiction – an addiction that I hope will never go away.
I have been a devoted habitue of the Izmailovo Vernissage since my arrival in Moscow five years ago. I have managed to spend practically every pre-dawn Saturday morning, rain or shine, snow or sleet, at the famous flea market, or (blashinii rinok in Russian),— trudging through the mud of the second level while viewing the myriad wares of the seller/dealers who arrive from distant Russian regions.
Once a royal estate outside Moscow that was primarily reserved for hunting, with Peter the Great spending his childhood sailing a small boat around its Lake, Izmailovo is now a residential enclave and part of the city environs. Located approximately 15 kilometers from the city center, it is easily reachable by the Metro, or as in my case, by a Novaya Zheltaya Taxi, one of those imitation New York cabs. It includes Izmailovsky Park, covering an area of 1180 hectares, which is considered to be one of the largest urban forest parks in the world. It is larger than both the Bois de Boulogne in Paris and five times larger than my home city park, Central Park in New York. It houses a famous jumbled market in the Soviet tradition and the even more famous ‘Vernissage’ section (the French word refers to a private viewing, or the opening day of an exhibition), as the Russians call it, where one can view the wares in the wooden stalls of the upper ‘antiquarian’ levels.
I have been asked by Passport Magazine to share the story of my discoveries on these early morning forays and to write an essay on a monthly basis, accompanied by illustrations of the individual objects I have purchased in the Vernissage. I am a professionally trained art historian, and have spent over 30 years collecting antiques around the world. I hope to provide some insight and knowledge for our readers, when discussing a particular object found in the course of my wanderings throughout this wonderful flea market.
Many of my Russian friends hold a cynical view towards Izmailovo. I often hear from them that “there is nothing left at Izmailovo any more…anything of value has been bought a long time ago and now it is all ‘junk’ or forgeries (referring to icons most likely)…and the junk is very expensive”. There is some truth in this view. I would never hazard to purchase an icon in the Vernissage. Russian forgers are so brilliant at their craft, that I have been told by experts in Russian icons that even they have been fooled by some of the ‘serious’ icons heralded as authentic in Sotheby’s and Christie’s sales catalogues. The other factor is that most of the great Russian private collections, before the onslaught of Bolshevism and Communism, were dispersed to national museums or destroyed during the Revolution. Any Soviet citizen whose forebears were members of the gentry or the upper classes (as were mine), and who still owned any antique objects, would hide them from the authorities or else be branded ‘bourgeois parasites’. My beloved grandmother carried in her brassiere, small and valuable items of family jewelry throughout our post-WWII Îmigre wanderings, but spent most of her life in Russia during the Soviet period, hiding them from view. When we arrived penniless in the United States in the late1950’s, these lovely family heirlooms were sold and allowed us to survive under difficult circumstances, as we found our way in the ‘New World’.
But to my great surprise, there were obviously many families like mine throughout the Soviet period who also hid their family heirlooms away in attics or ‘sunduki’ and now these objects are surfacing at the Vernissage! Babushkas in regional towns are opening their family suitcases to anyone who is willing to pay for these items, and ‘dealers’ are being born overnight as a result. They travel from great distances on trains or cars to Moscow, arriving in the city very early in the morning, before sunrise, to set up their wares in the wooden booths or often simply on the dirt ground. Many of the sellers in the Vernissage are literally ‘wanderers’ throughout the regions of Russia, who offer to purchase any old items from locals – usually for kopeiiki. Some of these so-called dealers are educated and knowledgeable individuals, with some art historical background or artistic sensibility. But most of them are newly minted entrepreneurs who have discovered that they can make a decent living in the course of one weekend at Izmailovo and earn more money than most full-time jobs can bring. I have gotten to know many of them, and they have learned to recognize my collecting habits and to set aside certain objects for my private viewing. Some of these characters are truly out of Gogol, and dealing with them, and bargaining prices with them, can turn into a comical drama of the first order.
It is true that the prices at Izmailovo have escalated tremendously, at least since my arrival five years ago, and everything now seems to start with a hundred dollars. But, nevertheless, one can still find some wonderful buys at very reasonable prices when compared to the rest of world’s flea markets. Otherwise, one would not be found bidding against top Moscow antiquarian dealers (as I have often found myself to be doing in the pre-dawn hours on bitter cold Winter days), or museum curators, or mini-oligarch collectors who have discovered the fun of ‘the chase’ in collecting, in spite of their ability to pay any price for any object of their desire. I have even recognized a very famous and elite Parisian antiquarian dealer roaming through the aisles of the upper levels on one of those cold winter mornings. And he looked deeply immersed and absorbed in everything that caught his eye.
The items that I have purchased in Izmailovo are not necessarily of any great value. It is very rare that one comes across a truly valuable object of museum quality level at “Izzie’s”. But the objects I have collected often tend to be unique and unusual in their classification, and there is no other market in the world that I know of where one can develop a lovely array of Russian or Soviet decorative objects in every category.
I have very broad and catholic tastes as a collector, but at Izmailovo, I tend to focus mostly on Russian objects as opposed to European ones. European decorative art objects that I have come across in Izmailovo tend to be of very mediocre quality, and can be better bought in Paris or London antique markets, and less expensively at that. One should also avoid buying antique Russian furniture in Russia if possible. The prices are twice or three times what they would be at Sotheby’s or Christies in London, New York or Paris. But when it comes to small decorative objects, once can still find wonderful bargains.
My preference has always been to collect objects that are representative of the history of Russian decorative arts – preferably of the pre-Revolutionary period, though objects from the 1920s and 1930s have also recently become of interest. I tend to be less enamored of the classic Soviet period, though this era has now become popular in the minds of Russian dealers and collectors, as the objects are becoming rarer to find and the prices have risen enormously. I do have specific interests however, and they include the following: Russian antique textiles; Russian silver; Russian beading of the 19th Century; carved wooden Church sculptures; artist’s sketch books; “Friendship books” (more on that fascinating European tradition in a future article); pre-Revolutionary and Soviet toys; objects originating from the Abramtsevo and Talashkino craft style (rare and costly now); and anything in ivory or tortoise shell, to name a few. And then of course, I collect paintings and drawings of any Russian period. I hope to cover most of these categories in future articles.
Collectors are by nature a bizarre and indefinable category of humans. Many books have been written attempting to define why we humans collect anything, and there have even been published psychological studies attempting to classify the motivations behind the passions of any collector. Was it an unhappy childhood? Is it an obsessive-compulsive disorder? Some scholar has even suggested that this is an attempt to offset death, by collecting and surrounding oneself with objects that are never-ending in their number.
People collect and become collectors for many different reasons, and it really doesn’t matter why…what matters, at least for me, is the great joy that can be derived from the ‘chase’ – the excitement that can arise when a discovery is made among a jumble of junk, and particularly with the ‘dealer’ not knowing or understanding the innate value involved. And then there is the truly great satisfaction of building a collection – of collecting a variety of items within the same category, but distinguished by variations in design, date or even quality.
Collectors tend to be researchers by nature – they tend to enjoy learning and building a foundation of knowledge. But above all they enjoy ‘the hunt’, ‘the chase’, with the successful outcome never known in advance, and that may also be the narcotic pull for some. But collectors often need to become scholars in their own right if they address the matter seriously, for the more objects one sees and looks at, the more one reads and studies on the subject, the better one’s eye becomes in evaluating quality and rarity.
“Izzie’s” is a unique experience for those of us living in this extraordinary country, and my Saturday mornings in Izmailovo has provided some of the happiest moments of my Moscow experience. I look forward to sharing my many joyful discoveries with our readers in future editions of Passport Magazine.