Russian dolls...five for the price of one!

Where else can you literally get five for the price of one?
Where else can you literally get five for the price of one?
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Our antiques expert Allan Blackburn looks at the elaborate artistry in a classic antique...

Happy New Year! I see many of you heading out for some retail therapy, some for January sales bargains, some just to see the outdoors, even through the rain!

Interestingly, at this time of year we get many people visiting the centre simply to browse and handle handcrafted and individual items, after the bombardment of mass produced Christmas presents and adverts.

So this thought tickled me: what’s the best bargain you can get, that’s still handmade and beautifully crafted? Surely a set of Russian dolls - literally five for the price of one.

A matryoshka doll or Russian nesting doll is a set of dolls of decreasing sizes placed one inside another. A set of matreshki (the plural of matryoshka) are usually nested in figures of five or more. The shape is mostly cylindrical, rounded at the top for the head and tapered towards the bottom. The artistry is in the painting of each doll, which can be extremely elaborate, bright and colourful.

Nowadays, Russian dolls are available on nearly every theme you can think of, with presidents, film stars and even characters from the Simpsons selling well. However, the most popular dolls with collectors are still the traditional highly painted and lacquered red and yellow dolls depicting peasant women. Indeed, the word matryoshka is a diminution of the popular Russian girls’ names ‘Matryona’ or ‘Matriosha’, and means ‘Little Matron’. A good example is this set of dolls which is on sale at GB Antiques Centre for £10. Sadly, most modern souvenir sets are cheaply mass produced outside Russia. They are far less pleasing decoratively, and useless as toys if they break, or stick together.

Genuine Russian dolls often have either a floral design on the bosom of the dolls, or people representing fairy tale scenes. Other details to check include more detail in the shaping or hand painting, a signature anywhere on the doll, and if it is more than 20 years old.

The more expensive dolls should feel smoother to the touch, reflecting the care taken to ensure the doll was well sanded, painted, and then lacquered with care and detail. In old sets, the first doll often had a bevelled base; if absent, it might be missing a doll.