Restoring Artworks Restored His Life

October 27, 1991|By Linda Lowe Morris

In the soft autumn light coming through the window, Yakov Bogatyryev looks for the invisible.

As if his hands could see, he rubs his fingertips slowly over a large, ornate wooden frame covered in dark gold leaf. To the untrained, even up close, it is old, a well-preserved antique, lovingly cared for.

Yet as he moves his hands over the deeply carved surface, he sees something else.

"Everything was broken," he says. "Water damage."

He begins to point out his work, the carefully concealed art of the restorer. "This was broken and this was broken. This is new. . . . This is new. . . . It's mine. . . . It's mine. . . . It's mine. . . . It's mine."

More than half the huge frame, roughly 3 by 5 feet, is new, sculpted entirely from plastic by Mr. Bogatyryev, then covered with bright new gold leaf. But there seems no difference between the new and the original sections still covered with 100 years of patina.

He smiles and picks up a small jar, one of several secret ingredients he has to make new things antique. He unscrews the lid and holds it forward. "Dirt," he says.

Yakov Bogatyryev takes things broken, worn or abused -- porcelains, paintings, icons, gilded frames -- and makes them look perfect again. While other local artisans restore paintings, even old frames, he is the only one who repairs porcelains.

He picks up a vase. Japanese, he says, maybe Satsuma. "I don't knowwhat it is, but it's not cheap, it's expensive. A little crack. And this was broken, too," he adds, again tracing his fingers along invisible seams.

He picks up another and not even he can find his own work.

For three months now Mr. Bogatyryev has been working in his little shop, Yakov's Restorations, located in a small second-story space on Antique Row on Howard Street inside another shop, Tansu.

"I do everything," he says. "Icon repair is my specialty, but no one has brought me an icon yet because there are so very few icons."

He learned his skills in his native Ukrainia, where he worked for 15 years for the museums in Kiev. But it was not his first career. He became a restorer, he says, because he was arrested for reading a book.

"I'm an engineer, an electronics communications specialist. This began as my hobby. This was my second life."

Born in 1946, he studied engineering at night at a branch of the Odessa Institute of Technology in Kiev. A few months after his final exams in 1970, he was caught reading "The Gulag Archipelago," by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

"When I got it," he recalls, "I wanted to spend every minute of my free time reading it because it was so fascinating. On the trolley or anywhere I would read it but I would only open it like this," he adds, holding his hands like a book barely opened.

In spite of his care he was seen and caught by the KGB. The first two months he was held at a KGB prison and interrogated daily. After that he was sentenced to three years -- on a criminal charge, not a political one -- and sent to a regular jail.

"The cell was a little larger than this room," he says, waving his arm around his workshop, "and there were 55 people in it. The food was unbearable. There would be a small window with a heavy grating on it so that you couldn't see anything through it. And everybody in the cell would smoke. It was impossible to breathe."

They were authorized to have one hour of exercise per day but the trip to the yard and back took almost the whole time. "So at most we got maybe 10 minutes of fresh air once a day."

His cell contained first offenders. "There were many from the local village. So there were people there who stole a cow, sold it and got drunk. Another one was a drunk who got on a tractor and went to the store to buy more vodka and on the way back he destroyed the tractor. But in those days everybody was thrown into jail for the slightest offense."

His grandfather, he added with a somewhat ironic smile, was a communist. "Everybody thought that communism was going to bring some changes in the 20s and the 30s. He used to keep a huge portrait of Stalin; everybody practically prayed to this portrait. But until the 1950s the whole population of the Soviet Union prayed to these portraits."

When he was released from prison, after serving a year and nine months of his sentence, he was unable to get work as an engineer. He worked in local factories and for his own enjoyment began collecting icons and other artworks. Often they needed restoring and friends who worked as restorers taught him how to do it.

By chance, at the same time, he came across a collection of sketches, illustrations to the works of the poet Taras Shevchenko. He took them to the Shevchenko Museum in Kiev to donate them and because of that contact he began to do minor restoration for the museum. That led to a full-time job at the nearby Ukrainian Museum of Western and Eastern Art.

He decided to leave the Ukraine after the accident at Chernobyl, he says.

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