It is very rare for an auction house to advise a client to have a professional museum-level conservation or cleaning of their objects prior to the sale. However, in the collecting world of Russian enamels, a priority is placed on pieces that are absolutely original, and which retain their original gilding and enamel with no rubbing, wear, chips, or scratches. In the case of this marvelous “plique a jour” cigarette case, the century of exhibition in a private collection had occluded view of the original surface with a layer of surface dirt and oil, as well as tobacco smoke and other resins. People who attempt to clean these types of works with abrasive silver polish will ultimately destroy the value of their pieces through gradual abrasion of the finishes.
To adequately ascertain the condition of the piece, it was important to clean it first – and cleaning of plique-a-jour enamel requires the steady hand and skill of a jeweler with many years of experience. A specific cyandide-based solution is used that dissolves the organic materials (dirt, oils, resins) while leaving the inorganic materials (silver, gold, glass enamel) intact. The cleaning technique is difficult (and highly toxic), and should only be left to a trained professional.
As you can see, the results are beautiful. In addition to revealing the intact original gilded surface, removing opaque overpainting that obscured the the original colors of the monogram and the delicate shading of the floral scrollwork enamel, it also revealed the maker’s mark: that of the famed Pavel Ovchinnikov of Moscow.
Photos: Before and after cleaning, a Russian silver-gilt and plique-à-jour enamel cigarette case Pavel Ovchinnikov, Moscow (1882-1899). To be offered 10/18/16. Estimate $4,000-6,000.