'Exquisite' Russian icons up for sale

A collection of 60 Russian icons from the 16th to 20th centuries is to go on auction in New York in April.

Laurence A Steinhardt, who died in 1950, amassed the collection of pieces after becoming fascinated by the aesthetic beauty and religious significance of the sacred images, during his time as US Ambassador to the Soviet Union.

He was appointed to the roll by President Franklin D Roosevelt in 1939, and led the historic US diplomatic mission in Moscow until 1941. Later he continued his ambassadorial career in Turkey, Czechoslovakia and Canada.

He unfortunately died in a plane crash near Ontario on his way to Washington, DC – aged just 57.

The collection has remained in his family ever since, though some artefacts were put on display at the Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens in Washington in 2004.

Steinhardt's collection is widely regarded as the finest owned by a private collector. The devotional pieces, which have been considered sacred by generations of Russian Orthodox believers, include icons from a range of different schools. Auctioneers Bonhams described the craftsmanship across the collection as "exquisite".

Pieces include a rare icon of Deesis with Christ Emmanuel and a late 17th-century triptych Smolensk icon of the Virgin Mary with a metal oklad (cover). Each is expected to fetch between $80,000 and $120,000 at auction.

Steinhardt's decision to establish his own collection saved the icons from almost certain destruction. During the communist era, monasteries were closed and churches destroyed. Any symbols of orthodoxy, including icons, were seized and frequently destroyed, or were used as currency.

To have such a significant collection of pieces all together is therefore remarkable.

Bonhams will auction Divine Treasures: Important Russian Icons from the Collection of Ambassador Laurence A. Steinhardt on 10 April, following a five-day preview.

A complete catalogue will soon be online at www.bonhams.com/auctions/21771.