When top Soviet diplomats go sightseeing in New York, they almost invariably go window shopping at A La Vieille Russie (translated: In Old Russia), on the bustling corner of 59th Street and Fifth Avenue.
But they seldom, if ever, buy, says the shop's co-owner Peter Schaffer.
They politely survey the diamond-studded Faberge eggs, the gold chalices covered with enambled medallions, and the gold and silver samovar that was given by Czar Alexander II to his son. Mr. Schaffer's father bought the samovar in the late 1920s to $80.63 -- it is now valued at close to a half-million dollars.
But Schaffer sometimes wishes he had more customers like the Soviets -- who look but don't buy -- because the demand for Faberge eggs is so great he is constantly turning customers away.
"It's so silly when you have to have people lined up for the eggs," says Schaffer. "And you tell them, 'I'll give you one this month, and next month you can have one. It sounds kind of silly, but there are so many people that want them."
A La Vieille Russie is now the nation's premier wholesale and retail outlet of old Russian art and jewelry.
In about 1927, currency-short Soviet authorities began to sell loads of jewels and art objects, Schaffer relates, and it's estimated that upwards of $ 150 million worth of Czarist-era art and jewelry was sold to people around the world.
The late Marjorie Merryweather Post, heiress of the C. W. Post fortune, bought many Russian antiques from the Soviets during this period. Her estate, "Hillwood," now a museum in Washington, D.C., is said to be the largest private collection of Russian art in the US.
Many of Schaffer's sales items can be traced back to pre-revolutionary Russia. In 1842, Gustave Faberge opened a jewelry shop in the Russian city of St. Petersburg.
It was his son, Carl, who became jeweler to Czar Alexander II, creating the first jeweled egg for the monarch in 1885. The Czar used the eggs in his Easter celebration.
When Schaffer's father bought his first Faberge eggs, they were relatively easy to find. "Now, even the miniature ones are expensive, because they are so scarce," Schaffer says.
Schaffer's late father was a grain merchant in Russia, and he began acquiring art objects from families who could only pay for his grain with their heirlooms, including jewels, antiques, and draperies. In 1934, the elder Schaffer opened a small antique shop here.
Currently, A La Vieille Russie's least expensive Faberge piece is a parasol which sells for about $3,000. Miniature Faberge eggs, about the size of a thumb tip and without any adorning diamonds or emeralds, go for as much as $4,500. The larger jewel-studded ones can sell for "six figures," says Schaffer.
But there's always the installment plan --provided the customer's credit is good. Such buyers are offered a one-time chance to buy an e gg, putting some money down with monthly installments.