I decided to try my luck today and obtain the documents from the Ministry of Culture that will allow me to export the artwork I bought. After calling UPS for details and phoning the number they gave me, I was pleased to discover that the office is located on the quaint Old Arbat street, tucked behind the apartment that Russian poet Alexander Pushkin once lived in. Incidentally, there is a large bronze plaque on the building's exterior making note of that fact...
"Splendid, I thought. This might actually turn out to be a civilized endeavor!"
I went to the office at 1:30 with all the documentation - copy of my passport, photos of the piece, receipt. Not really knowing where to go or what to do, I entered the office and mumbled something about needing a document to take art out of Russia. The woman at the desk thrust a form at me and directed me to fill it out.
After admiring my nice cyrillic penmanship I went back into the office and was curtly told that I would be invited back when they were ready. Um, ok, I'll just wait outside. But time marches on, inexorably toward the 2:00 lunch break. When the person ahead of me exited the office, the security person directed me to go in. But when I entered I was met with indignant shock:
"It's 2:00, it's lunch time, come back in an hour!"
"Ok," I replied, "in an hour, right?"
"Yes, an hour. Come back at 3:00 but don't be late because we're closing early today."
"Do you want me to leave the paperwork here?" I timidly asked.
"What would I want that for? Can't you see I have all of these ones to work on already?" she barked in reply.
I went and got lunch at a shashlyk (kebab) joint on Arbat street to satisfy my undying lust for meat. At 3:00 sharp I was back at the office, only nobody was there - still out to lunch. At 3:10 the woman who barks was back but the "expert" didn't return until 3:30. At 3:40 I was finally invited in.
Then began a 15-minute debate between the two women over what the sculpture was made out of. I did my best to assist the discussion but was not considered helpful by either party.
"Why did you write that it's papier mache?"
"Because that's what the man who sold it to me said it was."
"It can't be. It looks like plaster to me."
The other woman jumped in: "But look at that color, it looks more like biskvit (I don't know what that is)."
"But they wouldn't make a bust out of biskvit. What about [unknown material]?"
"No, that's black, this is white."
You get the picture. This went on for some time. I timidly asked why we couldn't just put down that it was plaster. Wouldn't that be easiest?
"Because I can't appraise it if I don't know what it's made out of."
Is it possible that I was dealing with someone who took her duties seriously, who took pride in her work?
"You'll just have to bring it in."
"But I can't bring it in, it's very large and it's already packed up."
"Hold on, let me try this..."
She called some colleague at another office and described the puzzle. Hanging up the phone, she said, "Well, they might be able to tell us what it is. In the meantime, take this slip to the bank up the street to pay 130 rubles (about $5)."
"You mean I can't pay here?"
"No, but be quick because we close in 10 minutes."
I bolted out the door and down the street nearly killing myself on the ice. Having paid, I returned to the office where the mood had improved significantly.
"Ah, we have solved the mystery!" the expert exclaimed. "All this time we were looking at the pictures trying to figure it out, and here it's written on the receipt: 'bust made of plaster.'"
Mind you, this is the "official" receipt that I paid a guy $20 to make for me with the help of the original guy who sold the bust to me. Knowing that I would need something official-looking for just this scenario, I had returned a week after the purchase to get the receipt. Since they don't give receipts at the flea market, my new friend Gennady had arranged with an art store to make one up for me. Everything has a price.
I still really don't think it's plaster, as it's too light to be plaster. But I wasn't going to argue with the expert, who placed the utmost importance on the true nature of the material. "And my colleague told me that in the 1980s they used a plaster-clay mix, which is why we didn't recognize it." She had become quite pleasant and friendly, perhaps because she had solved the mystery, perhaps because I had paid already.
"So," she said handing me a slip of paper, "call this number in about a week to make sure the documents are ready."
"Ok, so I call the number and then come here to pick up the documents and that's all I need?"
"No, you go somewhere else to pick up the documents, you don't have to come back here for anything. The address is on the paper."
And so, it looks like we're in for at least a trilogy, as next week will take me across town for the next installment of this wild goose chase...