282. A Contrabass Balalaika

North America, early 20th century
Size: 1m 77cm high

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Interest in the balalaika in America developed as a result of the virtuoso performances by Vasily Vasilievich Andreyev, when he gave a series of concerts there in the early 20th century. This unusual example was most probably made by or for Russian immigrants living on the East Coast, where it was recently rediscovered.

A decade ago I was part of a group assembled to advise Mikhail Piotrovsky about rearranging the seventeen rooms devoted to Islamic art in the Hermitage, and to raise the money necessary to transform them. Each time we were in St Petersburg, Piotrovsky would arrange a treat for us, and during one visit it was a concert in Catherine the Great’s theatre in the Hermitage. Three giants stumbled onto the stage, bushy-bearded, booted, in long coats and tall hats, apparently drunk, and swaying as they tried to gain control of their improbably large instruments. They were superb musicians and consummate actors, and gave one of the most enjoyable performances I have ever witnessed. They were like three wild tzigane versions of Tiny Tim (who also was huge). One of their outsized instruments resembled this one, which I spotted at Masterpiece in 2015. When I collected it, I found it had been awarded First Prize for a folk object in the Fair. It comes with the certificate.