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Divine collection of Russian icons from former ambassador to USSR sells for $1.3 million
A triptych icon with Christ Emanuel and Archangels, Russia, Moscow, 1700-1735. Tempera on wood with gilding, total 30.5 x 78.75cm (12 x 31in). Sold for $ 227,000. Photo: Courtesy of Bonhams.

NEW YORK, NY.- An unparalleled collection of Russian icons assembled by the former United States Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Laurence A. Steinhardt, realized $1,340,000 at auction on April 10 at Bonhams New York. As ambassador, Steinhardt led the U.S. diplomatic mission in the U.S.S.R. from 1939-1941, bearing witness to the early turmoil of WWII. The collection of more than 60 devotional pieces ranging in date from the 16th-20th centuries had been in the Steinhardt family for generations and was considered the finest collection of Russian icons in private hands.

“Laurence A. Steinhardt was a dedicated student of Russian art, who valued the icons’ aesthetic and cultural significance. His dedication to the art form saved many fine examples from destruction during the aftermath of the 1917 Revolution and the following years of anti-religious campaigns,” explained Yelena Harbick, International Director of the Russian Department at Bonhams. “It was a true honor to handle the ambassador’s collection, which he assembled with genuine devotion and incredible foresight. I am especially pleased many of the pieces will return to Russia, where they will be appreciated anew.”

Bidders in more than a dozen countries participated in auction, with interest coming from Asia, Europe, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S. Bidding wars broke out repeatedly between attendees and those vying for the treasures over the telephones and live online. The auction was an impressive 96 percent sold by value.

The sale’s top highlight was a very rare example of a specially commissioned icon made for a private chapel or domestic iconostasis. Dating from the late 16th century and replete with local saints from Yaroslavl and Rostov, the splendid piece was one of the oldest pieces on offer. Estimated to sell for $18,000-25,000, the exceptional icon achieved $245,000 after a lengthy bidding war.

Additional highlights included an early 18th century triptych icon with Christ Emanuel and Archangels that more than doubled its estimate to reach $227,000. Another triptych that attracted attention, this one made in the Kremlin workshop between 1650 and 1660, was a Smolensk Mother of God that brought $173,000 – well past its estimate of $80,000-120,000.

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