Oleg Kushnirskiy
Russian Icon Collection
Online gallery of antique Russian icons and religious artifacts. Professional icon restoration and appraisal services.
Founded by Oleg Kushnirskiy, Russian Icon Collection is one of the leading online galleries of antique Russian icon painting. It represents the most accurate compilation of all the knowledge and expertise gained from many years of collecting religious icons of museum quality. Initially created to preserve this art form and showcase masterpieces of Eastern Orthodox iconography, Russian Icon Collection has evolved into a trustworthy platform where individuals can appreciate and sell authentic antique icons and religious artifacts.
Oleg Kushnirskiy
Oleg Kushnirskiy is a collector of Russian icons and a recognized expert in the field. His collection, which he started in the United States in the 1990s, includes items from the late 17th to the early 19th centuries. Many of his icons are from the Vladimir region's icon-painting villages, including Palekh, Mstyora, and Kholuy. Others come from the Old Believer communities in Guslitsy and Vetka and various workshops in central Russia.
Ilya Kushnirskiy
Ilya Kushnirskiy is the director of the Oleg Kushnirskiy Russian Icon Collection. He is actively involved in publishing and educational initiatives related to the collection. One of his primary goals is to establish partnerships with art institutions and engage with a wider expert community. In line with these efforts, the first comprehensive catalog of the collection was released in April 2023 and presented at the Mikhail Abramov Museum of Russian Icon (Moscow), a private museum with a well-established reputation both in Russia and internationally.

- What was the impulse for your father Oleg Kushnirsky to start the collection?
- When he began collecting back in the Soviet Union, I believe that he was impressed by the spirituality of the subject matter. In the communist era, there was no commercial activity, only bartering. Collecting art was limited to a small group of individuals who valued rare and unique items. These collectors were interested in preserving the past.

My father was particularly struck by the fact that icons were often undervalued or ignored due to the lack of religious practice during that time. In remote Russian villages, where he traveled as a photographer, he saw some people treating valuable icons as consumables, for example, as wood for making fire. There were also educated people who downplayed their importance. This saddened my father as he recognized the artistic and spiritual value of these items. The collection he assembled in the Soviet Union included many icons he saved from destruction and oblivion. However, he left it behind when we moved to America.

Upon arriving in the United States, he started a small antique dealing business at the Chelsea flea market in New York City, which was a legendary hub for antique dealers. He discovered that Russian icons were available for purchase and sale and that it was perfectly legal to do so. This is how the current collection we are discussing now began.
- Has Oleg Kushnirskiy's experience as a photographer influenced the way he approached collecting?
- Absolutely! Oleg had a private photo lab in his home, and people would approach him by word of mouth to take photographs of their families, artworks, and other subjects. This allowed him to see a lot of art while taking pictures for collectors and artists who wanted to share their work but didn't want to send the actual piece to an exhibition.

In the Soviet Union, photography was not easily accessible and required connections. So I would say my father was in a privileged position because a lot of people needed his services. By meeting a wide range of people from the artistic community, including top collectors, conservators, and artists, and having the opportunity to speak with them, he formed his taste and understanding of art and icons in particular.

I would like to stress that as a collector he focused on the aesthetic side rather than historical significance, which is rarely the case. Most often people build their collections around a specific time period, school, artistic movements, or location. As a result, such collections may lack one essential thing: beauty.


The Yearly Menaion (a set of 12 icons of saints commemorated every month)

Second quarter – middle of the 19th century. Palekh.

- What do you remember about the brightest moments and encounters at the Chelsea Flea market back in the 1990s?
- The Chelsea Flea Market was a popular place for famous people to visit. One of the most amazing moments was when I met Michael Jackson. He just walked in, and everyone started staring at him. I remember he was very tall and came with a few people. I also saw Whoopi Goldberg and Gerard Depardieu. The flea market would open on Friday night and run through the weekend, but people would start lining up on Friday already. The earlier someone came, the better their chances of finding a gem. Looking for those treasures was a big part of the excitement for collectors.
- Which icons would you highlight in your father's collection?
- Among the gems of our collection are the Resurrection - Harrowing of Hades icon, featuring feasts, saints, and revered images of the Mother of God with scenes from legends and miracles. We also have rare and brilliantly executed images of the Mother of God, including the Unexpected Joy icon with Marian Feasts and Old Testament prophecies. The oldest work in our collection is the Crucifixion icon, depicting the Passions of Christ and Selected Church Feasts, executed by a Volga master in the mid-17th century. Another highlight is the Yearly Menaion, a set of 12 icons depicting saints commemorated every month, which has been excellently preserved.


Antique Russian icon. Third quarter of the 19th century. Moscow (?).

Size: 58 х 44 х 3 cm

Wood (two panels), two incut profiled support boards, absence of the incut centerpiece, underlying layer of canvas is not visible, gesso, tempera.

The author's paintwork is well preserved; slight chafing.

- Which personalities have had a significant impact on your father in his journey as an art collector?
- There have been many but probably the most important figure has been Mikhail Zvyagin, a prominent artist, sculptor, writer, and collector. He's been our close family friend for years. Mikhail moved to the United States in the mid-1990s, and his knowledge and expertise in art and collecting influenced my father greatly. They consulted often, and my father learned from him how to become an expert collector, including how to identify fakes, determine if something needed restoration, and pay attention to the small details. He treated me like his grandson, taking me to museums and galleries, and teaching me about art and history; he has shaped me a lot as well.
- What makes the collection unique?
- The uniqueness of the collection is in the fact that it was entirely assembled in the United States. Finding authentic pieces from another part of the world can be challenging, but my father was able to do so through his relationships with collectors and antique dealers who had been living in the US for decades. My father was not interested in purchasing pieces for their investment potential. Instead, he was drawn to the spiritual and artistic qualities of each piece and the feeling of holding something that he found amazing. While the collection has become valuable over time, this was never the primary goal of his collecting.
- I'm curious about some practical aspects of having a collection: I suppose antique icons need special conditions. Where do you store it?
- Correct, icons need professional art storage that provides climate control, safeguarding them from fluctuations of moisture, heat, and cold levels. Our collection is in one such storage in New York.

Centerpiece of the religious icon: around the middle of the 17th century. Volga region (possibly Yaroslavl).

Borders of the religious icon: 19th-century antique restoration.

Size: 40 х 33.5 х 3 cm

Wood (one whole board), two incut support boards, a shallow incut centerpiece, canvas not visible, gesso, tempera.

The author's paintwork is in a satisfactory state, partially chafed. There are also numerous small fallouts of gesso and paint. The given hand-painted Orthodox icon went through 'antique restoration' in the 19th century; paintwork on the borders was completely restored, partially afflicting the border scenes. The gold background, halos of the saints, and the gold graphics of the vestments were also redone in this period.

- What is the mission of the catalog, and how do you see the future of the collection?
- We run an art logistics company, Fine Art Shippers, and we transport a lot of contemporary art every day. While I also appreciate contemporary art and attend art shows regularly, I think that one form of art should not replace another. The reality is that historical art, including iconography, is disappearing from the mainstream. Some people view icons solely as religious artifacts and do not see their artistic or spiritual value.

As for the mission of the catalog, it serves as a documentation of the collection and a way to share its beauty with others. We hope to continue sharing the collection and educating people about Russian icons. I believe that historical art can still have relevance and meaning in our modern world.

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