article # 129
by Lazar Freidgeim  
(click on photos to enlarge image)

Reasonings of the treasure hunter

It' s as easy as apple pie. Nothing can be easier… To hit the jackpot or win a big hand in blackjack. To know every single answer in a TV quiz show. To marry into wealth. To be born smart and business minded in a proper time and place like Rockefeller or Bill Gates. To invent or develop the next big thing. To pick the right stock just before the news… The list goes on and on. There are many fair ways to get rich. Not to mention the unfair ones: to heist the bank, to blackmail a TV anchor, or simply force somebody rich enough to shell out your nice share…

There is also another easy way as old as the world: buy cheap - sell high. Since my school years I often have been thinking of "Adventures of Mottel, the Cantor’s Son" by Sholom Aleichem and the desk manual of always cheerful Elie, Mottel's brother. The book titled "For One Ruble, One Hundred Rubles (how to earn one hundred rubles with one ruble in a month)". Mottel learns about every day life and lectures us: "My brother Elie never loses his heart because we have burn one's fingers on kvass" [meaning that he is not upset, as already there were unsuccessful attempts (to make kvass, a Russian alcohol-free beverage)]. "If Elie only has his book, everything is going to be OK. Elie bought that book for one ruble. My brother has been pouring over the book and is learning it by heart". The book contains an endless list of recipes for making money. Elie already knows most of them. For example how to make ink, boot polish, how to exterminate mice, roaches and other filth.

I came to America with the background of a science lab manager. However, I landed my first job in an antique jewelry business. My boss considered himself lucky, when he bought something below the reasonable price. He would then rub his hands with pleasure: "What a deal! I couldn't have done better stealing it". He could hardly wait until the seller would leave, to show it and say: "A fine French Art Nouveau brooch I bought for the price of scrap gold". The brooch shaped as a dragonfly and covered with polychrome enamel. Immediately after the purchase he labeled the fine piece many times more expensive and put it in a showcase for sale. Unfortunately, going this route you might see some problems - simply put, the success is far from guaranteed.

I am talking here however about a secure way. My recipe is extremely simple and is based on several rules. All you need need to do is just follow them one by one. Unfortunately it has been a long time since I had to put my ideas in words as precisely as needed for scientific articles. Please do not be a severe judge, when it comes to shortcomings in my recommendations. For my personal well-being I prefer the rule of having pleasure. Therefore do not be surprised that every rule contains two parts - the deed and its result. These are my rules in plain words:
- find something extraordinary and enjoy it;
- learn how interesting and rare it is and enjoy it even more;
- look at the acquired thing(s) every day and enjoy them again and again;
- perceive the possibility of converting your collection into cash and enjoy the mere idea of that (But not to sell it).

You certainly can go to the 5th Avenue and 42nd Street in New York to find something worthy. You can visit the antique shops on Arbat Promenade in Moscow, Russia, or on Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles. You can become a frequent guest at Sotheby’s or Christie's auctions. You have a good chance to buy something valuable. If you are a millionaire, you will most likely lose this title for a while because the purchase implies an equivalent exchange of piles of money for what you buy. But you would miss the ethereal feeling of joy because you would not have done anything personally to find the rarity. My approach however implies my active involvement in searching for the interesting pieces which brings the feeling akin to that of a hunter going after the rare game. Knowledge, intuition and good luck often compensate for the lack of the thick wallet.

My advice won’t suit everyone. This reminds me of an old joke popular in the former Soviet Union. The meaning of the joke is hard to explain to people living in a country without shortage of every day supplies like toilet paper (available now in every supermarket). Anyway, a man is carrying rolls of toilet paper assembled together like beads on a string and wrapped around his neck. Another guy sees him on the street: "Where did you get that?" "It's not for you", the happy owner answers, "I got it at the cleaners".

Where should you search, where should you use the virtual pickaxe and the shovel of a gold miner? You get a great chance in small antique shops away from fashionable neighborhoods, at swap meets, flea markets, or small estate sales, when an old house is being sold. Do not miss Internet auctions so popular nowadays - the offers and the prices are sometimes overwhelming. Those collectors entirely free of snobbery would hardly forgive themselves if they miss Salvation Army thrift shops or garage sale widely available on the vast territory from Atlantic to Pacific. What you need is love for "hunting" and minimal experience like knowing the difference between Faberge and Fragile, American "silver" and "sterling" or Russian silver, as well as the difference between hundred year old "rubbish" and mass production, a gawky painting and polychrome, temperature sensitive, enamel requiring skill and patience.
In the good old times, when I lived in Russia, I used every opportunity to search for something interesting during my business trips far from Moscow. There was that jewelry shop in Rostov city where I bought an elegant gold brooch in the shape of a bow. It was covered with enamel of navy color, embellished with small diamonds, and a loop was provided, so that the brooch could be worn as a pendant as well. The overall style and especially the facets on the diamonds indicated that the thing was very old. I thought that the brooch could have been a part of some Russian order. There was no Internet back then, but I searched through the pile of reference books and catalogs on Russian orders, almost everything I could get my hands on in the Soviet libraries. Alas, all was in vain - I could not find a single clue. The puzzle was solved later quite unexpectedly. While working in an antique business in Los Angeles I came across a Swiss lady's watch from the 1880s with exactly the same brooch only in white color. This thing is rare and expensive.
gold brooch in the shape of a bow
table set designed by G. Tcheryatov

Several years later another purchase gave me great pleasure. In the same store in Rostov I bought a set of table silver for the price of 10 kopecks per gram (100 kopecks equaled 1 ruble). The set had a soup ladle and six soup spoons weighing altogether 800 grams. I paid a usual price for common table silver. The spoons had immediately drawn my attention by the perfect classical shapes popular during the heyday of Art Nouveau in Russia. There were depictions of chimeras on the spoon handles. The chimeras had always been a special subject in the jewelry art. My purchase resembled a Faberge set that I had seen in Moscow for an enormous price some time before. From Rostov I went to Grozny (Chechnya) and there showed the set to a jeweler; an acquaintance of mine. The jeweler examined every piece, pointed out the crack between the handle and the ladle, as well as the damaged gilt; and on top of that the secondary mark over the original one, the Soviet mark depicting "875" and a Red Army soldier en profile. And he offered me $800; ten times more than I had paid.
Later, in Los Angeles, I received another offer to sell the set "as is" with all the defects for four thousand dollars! The secret of the dazzling outcome is simple - the spoons were designed by G. Tcheryatov, one of the best Russian jewelers. The mark on the spoons says GTch in cyrillic (GTch in Latin), and there is inscription on the soup ladle G. Tcheryatov in cyrillic (G. Tcheryatov). The gold and silver factory of Georgy Kuzmich Tcheryatov functioned in Russia from 1900 till 1917 and produced mostly small amounts of silver dishes and table sets ordered by the Loriye (Loriye in cyrillic in Russian) Company. Works produced by Feodor Loriye can be granted the same quality as that of Faberge and are often priced very high.
table set designed by G. Tcheryatov: detail of the handles
M. M. Postnikova-Loseva book with authors autograph
For those who want to learn more about the sophisticated marks and the cooperation between Russian companies I recommend a marvelous reference book "Gold and silver work in 15th - 20th centuries", edited by M. M. Postnikova-Loseva, published in 1983. This book remains the best catalog for Russian and Soviet gold and silver. Unfortunately it has not been translated into European languages. This catalog is based on the book "Russian gold and silver work in 15th to 20th centuries" written by the same authors. First published in 1967, it soon became a bibliographical rarity. The latter book copy is in my library; it has the autographs of the authors and was a gift to the editor.
Sometimes however even this comprehensive catalog does not help. About three and a half years ago I bought a large set of Russian silver on eBay. The set of 64 pieces is great, but there is something of additional value. The set came with a 57x45x22 cm large solid oak box. There are three levels of shelves inside the box, and at each side of it metal handles are provided for carrying or transportation. When I unpacked the purchase, the big box impressed me not less than its content. It was made especially for the set which had originally served 12 persons and had consisted of about 130 pieces (I bought only what was left of that). A similar rarity I saw only once in my lifetime - in the "Museum for Public Catering" in Moscow, Russia. That museum had been opened in a former casino located in an old quiet side street and vanished pretty soon. Among the exhibits there were trunks used for transportation of dishes to picnics. The set that I have was made at the beginning of the 20th century. It is in excellent condition and looks like new. Each piece has a legible mark GL in cyrillic (GL), but I failed to find any clue in any of the catalogs. I found references to similar marks, but both had been used in earlier times. One mark belonged to a master from Irkutsk, Siberia, from the years 1820 or so, the other one identifies with Gregory Lakomkin, a 1st guild merchant from Moscow who was known between the years 1736 and 1769. I never found out by whom and where my set was made, nevertheless this does not diminish its beauty and its exclusivity.
64 pieces Russian set, master silversmith GL
In the recent years my "hunting" became more specific. I get more and more attracted to silver collectibles with views of Moscow, the capital of Russia. Most of my life is connected with this city; my close friends still live there, the city and its quiet corners continue to move me even while I am far away. Little by little, I acquired nielloed tea-glass holders with the Kremlin and other views of Moscow landmarks. The niello technique was particularly popular in Northern Russia. In my collection I have by now glass holders from Kubachi (Southern Russia), various cigarette cases - punched, engraved, embossed and nielloed. The depicted views vary as well - the Kremlin Quay, the Pashkov's House, even Lenin's first wooden mausoleum erected in 1924 on the Red Square, which only existed 5 years. I own a very old snuff box with a view of the Red Gate remembered now only by Russians fond of the "good old times". The spoons with Moscow views feature especially fine artwork.
silver and niello spoon: 1880, Moscow, Vasily Osetrov workshop
At one of the garage sales I saw a small set of an American's souvenir spoons. I saw a jam spoon in the set and its twisted handle looked typically Russian to me. I found on the back of the spoon a detailed image of the Cathedral of the Intercession of the Virgin (Pokrovsky) in Red Square. A ring framing the image was decorated with a geometrical pattern. This cathedral is more widely known by its folk name of the Cathedral of St. Basil the Blessed (Vasily Blazhenny). The contours look perfect even through a magnifier. The earlier mentioned catalog helped me to identify the origin. The spoon had been made in 1880, in Moscow, in the workshop of Vasily Osetrov. The collectibles of this kind have become a material incarnation of my never ending bond with Moscow: they make me feel the warmth of long gone past, touch some deepest strings in my soul.
Samovars take a special place in each collection. Their shapes vary surprisingly. A samovar was made not by one but by many workers. Each one usually worked at home and accomplished one step or made parts of the same kind. A worker earned roughly one ruble a day. The worth of finished samovars was estimated by weight in poods (one pood = 16 kilogram). They were sold by weight at wholesale price. A dozen samovars packed in special containers weighed more than four poods and cost approximately 90 rubles.

Samovar radiates a cozy family atmosphere, reminds of a warm summer night in the country, of the expressive painting "Tea-drinking in Mytischi" by Kustodiev, the famous Russian artist. My memory still recalls loads and loads of damaged samovars at the stations for scrap metal, as well as those crowded on the floor of the second hand shop in October Square in Moscow. They no longer attracted anyone except foreign tourists.

I got interested in samovars in America (apparently out of nostalgia). I bought a few pieces on eBay. In a Salvation Army Thrift Shop I saw a samovar burnt to holes and with a 2 cm deep scale crust inside. To the jealousy of my guests I made a desk lamp from that with my own hands.
desk lamp from a samovar
round shaped samovar
Not too long ago I visited an Estate sale in a bohemian house from the thirties on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. A famous company rented that estate for an antique show. I bought a round shaped samovar for $50 there. It was polished like a mirror. The thing had weathered many years, but the time has not left any marks. The owners must have brewed their tea some other way and not used the samovar. But the thorough polishing before the show eradicated the oval manufacture mark for the most part. I could read only a mysterious Russian abbreviation T.D.N.K. in cyrillic(T.D.N.K.). Until now I have not been able to solve the puzzle. I searched on the Internet, asked many private collectors, looked in my personal library, even wrote a letter to the "Samovar Museum" of Tula, Russia, and inquired of other museums exhibiting samovars. The abbreviation might stand for Warehouse of Nemirov-Kolodkin in cyrillic in cyrillic (Warehouse of Nemirov-Kolodkin) established in 1902. The House was primarily known for gold and silver products of the highest quality, but....why not think positive and assume that my samovar is one of a kind and was made by the famous House?
Speaking of architecture and crafts I would say I prefer the Art Nouveau style that survived through only a few dozen years (even less in Russia) and was swallowed up by Art Deco. Both styles are traditionally called modern in Russia. I adore the villas by Shechtel and Kekushev, two Moscow architects of modern. I repeatedly enjoy the villa in Los Angeles on the crossing of Rodeo Drive and Santa Monica Boulevard. I get mesmerized by holding Art Nouveau books, jewelry or small vases in my hands. The abundant details and inexhaustible fantasy of my favorite style reflects the continuous search for beauty so distinct for human beings.

I was happy when I bought an 11 inch high metal vase at a garage sale for only $3. All parts of the vase were so typical for Art Nouveau that my first guess was that the piece had been an accurate replica. The inscription "S. De Jardin" did not say much to me. I do not know whether my vase is original or a reproduction, but I placed it on the shelf above my desk next to my samovar lamp, and I like looking at it.
11 inches high metal vase
basket with whimsical handle worked of a solid twisted wire in the shape of a vine holding leaves and grape bunches
Of a similar elegance is the big basket from my collection with its whimsical handle worked of a solid twisted wire in the shape of a vine holding leaves and grape bunches. It is a big basket, its height exceeds 1 meter. I found the basket in a Salvation Army boutique where prices are usually low. Even empty, it seems to fill my room with colorful fruits. I would like to ask my attentive readers - perhaps, you might have seen a similar beautiful thing and have a guess from where this wonderful autumn miracle piece came.
There is an American saying: "You look like a million (dollars)!" I do not claim that. But the never-ending joy from the rarities I find and that fill my home is worth a million. I can consider myself a millionaire, can't I? And a bunch of green bills or a fat bank account - this is not my problem and not my destiny. I probably could use my knowledge to sell my precious things and make some extra money. But I'm afraid it would indeed make me hopelessly poor. And I hope I'll be able to avoid such fate. If my son or his children do not inherit my passion for "hunting" and collecting, they will decide some day what to do with my treasures. These will be different times, the times I won’t belong to.

Today is the 1st of the month. I received my monthly Social Security deposit. I am a Croesus! Why should I wish for more?
Lazar Freidgeim
- 2010 -
The author thanks Lydia Aleksev for her help in the writing of this work and additional clarification of some of the material
Lazar Freidgeim
Lazar Freidgeim, engineer, research fellow. He was born in Moscow, the capital of Russia, and has lived there most of his life. Since 1991 he lives in California (USA). In 2003 - retired - he began to publish his articles and essays in magazines, newspapers and online. His hobby is collecting old Sterling silver, mainly from Russia. His main interest is silver with images of architectural monuments of Moscow.