Your Unsigned Art could be a relic from the USSR!
Have you recently found some unsigned art? There’s a good chance it may be a relic from the Soviet Union….
Before you toss it in the dumpster, or hand it off to your in-laws, take five seconds to determine whether you may be in possession of a piece of communist art worthy of an appraisal for donation or insurance purposes!
While not a fool-proof strategy, this quick guide will help you understand the context in which these works were created, and some tell-tale signs for you to determine whether an appraiser or specialist should get involved in the assessment of your unsigned art!
Under the communist system of the Soviet Union (1922-1991), law dictated that all art was property of the state. This prevented all but the boldest and most well-connected artists from signing what they produced, in any medium, even if that work was produced for a specific civic project. According to this twisted logic, the creator of the art was defacing state property by affixing their personal signature. Though enforcement of this policy greatly declined after Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953, artists were still selectively punished when convenient for the government’s aims. Depending on the artist’s relationship to the communist party, punishments for a violation of the “anonymous policy” could range anywhere from public destruction of the work, to a 30-year prison sentence, or exile. Unfortunately, many of these works will never be attributed to the proper artist.
However, the totalitarian desire to keep all artists under strict censorship and supervision did create an equally quizzical byproduct that has gifted us a sizable base of authorship information….
Another Soviet-era regulation mandated that all works of art be registered with local artist unions, and also with the Ministry of Culture. These artist unions were just as much political organs as they were trade organizations. After registration in the local inventory, artists affixed “passports” to the back of their art. These paper labels were nearly equivalent to a signature or inventory label, but most have not stood the test of time….They were small, often affixed with glue of poor quality, and to art materials of especially poor quality. To further complicate attribution, many Soviet artists created many more works than they registered. These unregistered works were typically hidden, stored, or privately exhibited in studios, apartments, or underground art galleries. Though attribution is quite difficult, Soviet works can be briskly categorized by art historians, upon inspection, by several tell-tale signs that portray the harsh realities of artistic life under communist rule.
- The work is produced on materials of poor quality, strange size or thickness (because material was sourced from a non-approved source).
- Unsigned, and/or displays clear motifs of Eastern European culture/dress.
- Cyrillic characters, stamp, or obvious rectangular glue-stain on reverse.
- Propagandistic or overtly symbolic, not unlike an advertisement
- Impressionist or abstract in nature, and in relatively poor condition.
- Total lack of facial detail in comparatively detailed or realist painting.
So next time you encounter some unsigned art, take five seconds to consider these attributes…
If you have found any works that seem to present these attributes, you should contact an art appraiser or local museum specializing in Eastern Europe art. Several large cities in the former Soviet Union (Kiev, Minsk, St. Petersburg) also harbor large institutions that specialize in the attribution and evaluation of unsigned pieces. Locally, you may be able to present your piece to specialists at the Rutgers University’s Zimmerli Museum, which holds the largest collection of Soviet Art in the Western Hemisphere.
Co-authored by: Lynn Magnusson, AAA, ASA and Kollin Handler, Communications Director