Russian revolution shakes up the antiques world

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The Independent Online
Soviet revolutionary porcelain was sneered at by art lovers until recently. But, As our Heritage Correspondent, reports, a sale next month at Sotheby's in London expects five-figure sums for propagandist plates.

"He Who Does Not Work Does Not Eat" is a chilling message to have staring up from your dinner plate. Nor might the portrait of Lenin improve the digestion. But then the Bolshevik leaders who came upon a handy supply of imperial blanks had a message to get across, and it wasn't "enjoy your meal".

The plate by artist Mikhail Adamovich (1884-1947) is part of the Nicholas Lynn Collection to be sold as part of Sotheby's Russian Sale on 19 February. Decorated with powerful propaganda images, the collection is one of the finest outside Russia.

Porcelain produced by Bolshevik designers was circulated both within the former Soviet Union and abroad as part of an enormous propaganda effort after the October Revolution of 1917. Martyn Saunders-Rawlins, Sotheby's Russian specialist, says one intriguing question that could be answered by the sale is whether Russians "are able to overcome their perhaps natural distaste for things from the Communist era". In other art market areas, the new rich of Russia have become regular buyers at London auction houses.

Lenin was keen to create monuments and symbols to remind people of the achievements of the revolution and harnessed the old Imperial Porcelain Factory to this end. He wanted to ensure "what happened might be fired into the people's imagination and leave the deepest possible furrow in the popular memory". Raw materials were in short supply, but by good fortune the Bolsheviks discovered a vast stock of high quality undecorated imperial porcelain. Most of the blank plates dated from the reign of the last tsar, Nicholas II, but there were others with the cypher of his father, Alexander III, and earlier rulers.

The quality work of the renamed State Porcelain Factory was never intended for ordinary dinner-table use. Pieces were taken abroad to trade fairs and exhibitions and sold to generate much-needed foreign currency for the state. Sergei Chekhonin, artistic director of the State Porcelain Factory during the Twenties, also took some of his favourite pieces with him when he emigrated to Paris in 1929.

Lynn, who began collecting the porcelain in 1977 from Portobello Road and Bermondsey markets, was particularly interested in the work of Chekhonin. Several unique prototype pieces by him are included in the sale, including Sorrow, a large dish with a maiden holding a cornucopia and grieving for a failed harvest represented by black leaves falling from her hands. It is expected to sell for pounds 20,000 to pounds 25,000.

Lynn, who died in 1990, had a shop called the Winter Palace in Kensington Church Street in west London where he sold Russian works of art. However, until only a few years before his death neither he nor specialists such as Mr Saunders-Rawlins had much idea of their value.

"Really the first published material we had in English on these plates wasn't until 1985. Until that time we just didn't know what we were dealing with. We would put Soviet plates in the context of an imperial Russian sale and people would turn their noses up in a snooty reaction, `oh dear, they're Communist'."

Mr Saunders-Rawlins says many of the pieces should be seen as paintings that just happen to be on porcelain. "The tragedy to my mind is that if you had these as oils on canvas they would probably make 10 times as much."

The forbidding work ethic on the Adamovich plate is in Russian script, as are the slogans on other pieces. The plate is also decorated with ration cards, half an imperial eagle and a red star. The portrait of Lenin is based on the famous sketch by Natan Altman, one of the few taken from life.

Another important piece is the Signature Platter designed by Chekhonin in 1917. The rim is decorated with the facsimile autographs of those described in the centre as "The Architects of the Great Russian October Revolution", including Trotsky, Lenin, Lunacharsky, Alexandra Kollontai and Zinoviev. It is estimated at pounds 15,000-pounds 20,000.

A classic Altman image on one plate shows a red factory, sickle and stalk of wheat set against a vivid line green background with the slogan "The Land is for the Workers" in red on the rim.

The collection also includes a selection of figurines, many by Natalya Danko, head of the sculpture workshop at the requisitioned factory. One piece, Worker Holding a Rifle, is inscribed with the first three words of the "Internationale", a call to arms that once would have sent a shudder down the spines of the millionaires, barons and duchess whose kind dot the board of Sotheby's. Estimated at up to pounds 2,000, it now represents a few more pounds commission.