Behind the symbol and through the image, the eternal truths of faith shimmer and shine,” raved the German theologian Wilhelm Bousset more than a hundred years ago. Presumably, the Protestant was not thinking specifically of icons, but for the Orthodox Church, the church-consecrated wooden images are indeed windows into the spiritual world. In the materialistic world of this world – that is, in the art market – it is less a matter of spiritual values than of financial values, and in this respect hardly any other niche shows such dramatic developments as icons.
Russian icons became popular in the 1970s, when the West discovered this spiritually powerful art form. Prices rose and rose, from a few hundred to hundreds of thousands of dollars, pounds and Deutschmarks. The recession in the 1980s abruptly slowed this boom, and it wasn’t until after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the Orthodox Church in Russia also regained its standing, that prices picked up again with the economic boom.” At that time, many wealthy Russians in Europe and the United States bought icons to bring back to the “motherland.” Ironically, most of these icons had been bartered away to the West by Stalin in the 1930s to obtain hard currency. For enameled icons from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, especially those by famous artists such as Pavel Ovchinnikov or Ivan Klebnikov, six-figure sums were again paid at international auctions around the turn of the millennium – until the next economic crisis. Since then, the wheat has been separated from the chaff: average goods are left behind, while high-quality icons in good condition and of outstanding provenance continue to sell well.