Waves of immigrants flood Israel with Russian art

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

June 03, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

JERUSALEM -- The Russian woman came to Anton Razzouk's giftshop with a dozen enamel eggs -- beautifully handpainted in Moscow and St. Petersburg. For $100 each, he could have them.

Mr. Razzouk politely sent her on her way. These days, it is a buyer's market in Russian art, and he can get handpainted eggs for a fraction of that.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the immigration of Soviet Jews to Israel has brought a wash of Russian art and handicrafts here.

A lot of it is very pretty. Not all of it is real.

"I haven't seen anything that would be a showstopper," says Mary Gilben, who represents Christie's Auction House in Israel. "I've seen a lot of icons, a lot of little enamel Easter eggs. A lot of them are fake."

But whether they are old or just look old, souvenir-shop-quality Russian art now abounds in Israel. Some are legitimately imported. Some come from the household goods of struggling immigrants, hard-pressed for cash. And some -- the most valuable, antique items -- are smuggled.

"Of course they smuggle it in," says Mr. Razzouk, who with his brother George runs Citadel Souvenirs, a shop they call "the king of icons" inside the Jaffa Gate in the old city of Jerusalem.

Its shelves are lined with hundreds of handpainted Russian religious artifacts -- eggs with painted crucifixion scenes, flat boards with beaming Madonnas, miniature portraits of the Christ child.

The Razzouk brothers have been in the business for 40 years. They used to make regular trips to the communist countries in Eastern Europe to buy icons, and they admit to a bit of smuggling themselves.

But now, "the Russian Jews bring them to us, and it's a lot cheaper than we could buy in Romania," says George Razzouk.

Russia still has strict laws prohibiting the removal of old, valuable art. But the desperation of the economy, the profits to be had and the steady stream of immigrants to Israel are a virtual open spigot for smugglers.

"In the '70s, what was smuggled out was ordinary, 18th- and 19th-century icons that people had in their homes, nothing exceptional," says Anton Razzouk.

"Now, what is coming out is real precious. Museum pieces. In quantity."

As a Christian, he professes to be saddened by it all.

Russian art is being directly or indirectly stolen from Russia," he says. "I feel it's wrong. If not buying from these Russian Jews would help stop the burglary of the icons, I wouldn't buy. But I know if I don't buy it, others will.

"At least I make sure it goes to a good family," he adds. "Some people don't know the religious value of an icon. They put it out on the doorstep, out in the weather, or upside down."

Not only artwork is being brought out. Yasser Barakat, who normally specializes in fine Arabic handicrafts at his shop in the Christian quarter of the old city, says he bought three Russian carpets from an immigrant recently.

"It's the only way they can get their money out of Russia," he says. "They can't bring a car, or rubles. So they buy carpets, or icons, or diamonds, and bring them with them."

Mr. Barakat was ever-discrete about the price he paid, but he assured a potential customer he did not get them cheaply.

The Russian immigrants "understand exactly the value of what they're selling," he says.

David Assouline, a French art dealer who has a shop in West Jerusalem, says the immigrants also are bringing fine new paintings by contemporary Russian artists.

"In Russia, these paintings go for pennies," he says. "If it's a well-known artist, we can sell it for 5,000 to 10,000 sheckels" -- about $2,000 to $4,000.

Some Russian immigrants demand top dollar for the art they bring. But others do not, he says. "The galleries are having a field day. They give them $100 for something that is worth a lot more than that."

Even when the artists themselves have immigrated, they are exploited, he contends. There is such a surplus of talented immigrants, they are being put to work in virtual sweat shops churning out paintings for minimal wages, he says. But he predicts they will prevail.

"The Russian painters are so good. They have studied at an academy for 10 years. In another 10 years, the best artists in Israel will all be from Russia."

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