Sick Schaffer from ANTIQUE International


Sick Schaffer
Source: ANTIQUE International
By Amy Page, Editor-in-Chief of Art and Auction

‘The only reason we sell,’ says New York dealer Peter Schaffer, ‘is that we are sicker than our customers. Our customers need to buy something once a month, once a year. If we don’t buy something once a day we’re miserable. We need our fix, and the only way we support that habit, which is a rather pleasant habit as opposed to some other drugs, is by selling. But we only sell 99% of an object. If you were to buy something and I were to see you wearing it, I would say, ‘that’s mine.’ We never give it up. We’re serial collectors.’ Schaffer has spent more than 30 years working in the family business, A LA VIEILLE RUSSIE, a gallery renowned for its exquisite jewellery and Russian works of art. Founded in Kiev in 1851, there are now three family members in the business – Peter, his brother Paul, and his nephew Mark.

There have been changes in the market for Russian art, thanks to the opening up of the former Soviet Union and the desire on the part of Russians, both those who live at home and those who emigrated, to collect the art of their county’s past. ‘The outcropping of money has increased the number of Russian buyers around,’ says Schaffer, adding that ‘some but not all buyers are using black money.’ The prices for Russian art in Russia are higher than they are anywhere else, and Russians are also actively buying abroad. ‘I heard of an auction in London which 60 people from Russia attended, and some of the highest prices in the world are being paid for Russian art in Scandinavia.’

There have been several waves of Russian immigration to the States, the newest being ‘very nice, delightful, intelligent people,’ says Schaffer. These new emigres differ considerably from those who came here in the early eighties, many of whom returned to Russia, even before the Wall came down. ‘They had tremendous chips on the shoulders,’ maintains Schaffer. ‘They would come in and ask the price of an object. If you said $1,000, they would say they had the same thing and wanted $2,000 for it. They had absolutely no conception. And that’s when the first real fakes came out. Because they couldn’t take property out of Russia, they unwittingly bought fakes, which the government was manufacturing. So they were kicked in the face in Russia and then kicked again when people told them that what they had were fakes. Naturally, they were convinced that everybody was out to get them. It was a very difficult time.’

Fakes are a real problem in the Russian works of art market. Although it is illegal to take anything really good out of Russia, Schaffer reminds us that ‘there are antiques by the pound coming out – both real and fake.’ A preponderance of fakes coming onto the market (icons, Russian enamels, silver, Faberge) have, thanks to technology, become more sophisticated than the crudely made forgeries of a few years ago. Forgers have become very advanced, ‘even to the point of laser-copying the marks, so that they are incredibly accurate. This has caused a lot of problems for institutions and collectors.’

One has to be very careful when buying things from Russia,’ Schaffer warns. ‘Someone recently came into the shop with somebody I know, and we started to talk about works of art and he started to bring pieces out to show me. And I said that there should also be such a piece and such and such. And he turned red and went into his big bag and pulled those pieces out and said, “I guess you know the collection,’ I replied ‘I sure do and I don’t want it.” They were all absolutely brand new with one or two old pieces salted in.’

One side effect of the opening up of Russia is that Schaffer was able to find out about the family’s business in Kiev by having someone look up the records. It turns out that they had two shops. ‘We were in hotels, where, oddly enough, we are now,’ he says. (The store at 59th Street and 5th Avenue is in the Sherry Netherland Hotel). ‘We had a French name because Russian was only spoken to servants and children. The store had two names, one in French and one in Russian. Someone gave us copies of our bilingual ads. It is amusing to be able to find these things.’

‘We have a very good reputation from a funny point of view,’ says Schaffer. ‘We are very pleased with the recommendations we get from other dealers around town and around the world in Russian art. We deal in a wide variety of weird and wonderful things. People go into JAMES ROBINSON, SHRUBSOLE, CHAIT, whatever, and they don t have it, and they’ll say “try Vieille Russie. They might have it.” And we might. Because we don’t care what the period is – as long as the quality is there, we are interested.’

Amy Page is the Editor-in-Chief of Art and Auction. This article is reprinted from ANTIQUE International.