An article Tuesday on a fur auction in Leningrad incorrectly stated that ranch sable fur is inferior to that of wild sable. According to Soyuzpushnina, the Soviet fur trading company, in many cases ranch sable is superior to wild sable and therefore more expensive, although quality and price vary with each pelt.
Crown sable from the eastern Siberian region of Barguzin, star of the Soviet fur collection, went on sale just as a deep freeze gripped this former imperial city.
It was a good day to sell furs, and on that day late last month, the first in the 99th Leningrad fur auction, the Soviet Union collected a cool $30 million from merchants of high fashion gathered from around the capitalist world.
Fur is one of the Soviet Union's best known exported consumer goods. It is also bait for a country eager to trap hard currency: last year, the Soviet Union earned $100 million in fur sales.
In the case of sable, the Soviet Union has something no one else has -- in capitalist lingo, a monopoly.
Sable isn't all that draws the crowds to the thrice-yearly sales in the auction hall at 98 Moskovskii Shosse. Soyuzpushnina, the Soviet fur trading company, this year was also selling 1.5 million mink pelts, 20,000 pelts of silver fox, 5,000 of red fox, assorted wolverine, baum marten, squirrel backs and bellies, Persian lamb and Russian raccoon -- in all about 3 million skins.
Nor is sable the most expensive of the Soviet offerings. Russian lynx, tuftier and rarer than its North American cousins, topped the sale, as it always does, this year at $3,000 a skin. And in quality, Russian red fox is considered the best in the world.
But it is sable, especially wild sable, that is the Soviet trump card in the fur business, and historically, its jealously guarded treasure. For that reason, bronze figures of sables appear as handles on the outer doors of the Soyuzpushnina building here.
Ivan the Terrible is said to have made the sale of live sables abroad a crime punishable by death. Peter the Great on his travels in the West is said to have carried along trunks of sable skins to use as currency.
In the best-selling novel Gorky Park, popular among fur traders, it was the Soviet sable monopoly that was the key to the tangled tale of murderous intrigue.
There is another story, whose origin and veracity are unknown, that an American once traded a rare North American species to the Soviets in exchange for two live Russian sables -- only to find when he got home that they had been sterilized.
These are the tales that fur merchants tell as they drift through the cavernous show rooms at the Soyuzpushnina building, where skins hang in bunches, like bananas, on rows and rows of racks.
White coats, worn to protect street clothes against the smell and dirt of unprocessed skins, are de rigueur at Soyuzpushnina among traders and salespeople. But the expert buyer knows not to touch too much: the heat from the hand can literally singe the delicate hairs.
Voices are muted as the traders sift through the bunches, fingering the leather backing for brittleness and eyeing the colors. In sable, they look for a deep, rich brown along the spine and at the higher end of the spectrum, for the silver tips that distinguish wild Barguzin from its lesser cousins.
For the American buyer, whole racks at the Soviet fur auctions are off limits. A U.S. law dating back to Korean War days prohibits American imports of Soviet mink, martens and several other raw furs. Many buyers consider the law useless, since the same furs can be bought by other countries and sold as coats in the U.S. market.
In the fur business, each country has its favorite. Italians, for instance, are fond of the Russian red mink because the deep, rich shade flatters dark-haired women. The Japanese have staked out the market in sapphire, or grey mink, and silver fox.
For Americans, the lure of Leningrad lies mainly with sable, and this year, Richard Marcus of the Dallas-based Neiman-Marcus store came on a grand tour to inspect the goods, accompanied by his wife, Heather, son, Charles, and a photograper and a newspaper reporter from Dallas.
Just as the Soviet Union lords it over the supply side of the sable trade, so are there lords on the demand side, of which one of the mightiest is Neiman-Marcus. The name is a household word at Soyuzpushnina. A secretary, pausing over the visiting Marcus' first name, came up with a guess: "I think," she said, "it's Neiman."
The sable market is an exclusive one and Neiman-Marcus, one of the few retailers that comes yearly to Leningrad, has the customers. Together with Peter Dion, who owns Galanos Furs, Neiman-Marcus and its agents, the Mechutan Fur Corp. of New York, buy two-thirds of what they call the "top end" of the sable supply.
In the auction room where buyers are assigned numbers, the Neiman-Marcus team has the number 1.
This year Neiman-Marcus bought about 3,000 sable skins, the highest priced at $560 for a pelt that could fit on a big cat. The skins must be carefully matched for texture and colors to make a coat. At least 50 pelts go into a street-length coat.
David Wolfe, Neiman-Marcus senior vice president, estimated that this year, the firm bought enough for about 10 top-quality coats, after the mixing and matching is done. The rest will go into sable jackets and trimmings, and any small pieces left on the cutting room floor will be swept up and sold in bags to be patched together elsewhere.
The careful selection process explains the final price for a sable coat: about $100,000 and up for the best.
The talk among the fur traders this year is that world demand for fur coats is up, for the kind of inexplicable reasons that make fashion a finicky business. As a result of strong demand -- particularly from Japan, whose traders showed up here this year in greater numbers than usual -- prices were up, in the case of sable by as much as 20 percent.
But the market for sable coats is not one to flinch at price tags.
"Rare is the week we don't sell one or two," said Wolfe. "It depends on the life style. If you have a marble bathroom, silk sheets, a beach house and a ski house, a Lear jet and stay at the Ritz, then you inevitably want a sable."
"Sable fits a life style and if a lady has that life style, then she should have a sable," he said.
There is some irony in the Soviet Union, birthplace of the proletarian revolution, catering to the whims to the world's super rich, but it is hard to detect any qualms among the Soyuzpushnina officials.
At a banquet in honor of the Marcuses, Yuri Mashkin, the head of Soyuzpushnina, was the one who raised a toast to the sable, "That wild, delicate and available animal."
When the auctions first began in 1931, the sales in the auction room -- built like a big lecture hall -- were done in Russian. It did not work, and after some complaints, the language was switched to English.
About 85 percent of Soviet fur is sold domestically, as a glimpse at any crowd in the street will show: fur hats are on everyone's head and most coats have some fur trim.
The exception to this tilt toward domestic needs is the wild sable. Of the 165,000 sables sold in the Soviet Union last year, 115,000 went for export, according to Soyuzpushnina figures. Traders say the number has been relatively constant in recent years.
Soyuzpushnina officials, concerned only with selling, know little about the method of hunting wild sables. The season runs from November through January and is carefully regulated, they say.
The traders, some of whom have been coming to Leningrad for more than 25 years, say the animals are shot by hunters working on their own who then bring the skins to collection stations. According to one report, the fees paid for the pelts went up recently, to entice hunters back out on the trail, away from heated homes and television sets.
Wild sable still makes up the bulk of the market, but since 1936, when the first sable farm opened near Moscow, the Soviets have added six more. Ranch sable, which is far inferior to wild sable, is divided more evenly between exports and the domestic market. Last year, 12,000 skins were sold in the Soviet Union, compared with 15,000 sold abroad.
The Soviets concede that there are sables outside their borders -- in China, Mongolia and Japan. But the experienced traders pay little heed to these creatures. For sable, real sable, they come to Leningrad.
Wolfe remembers once when something called "dyed Russian sable" slipped into a Neiman-Marcus warehouse. The fake -- actually Canadian marten -- was spotted by a young apprentice testing his ability to tell furs apart without looking.
"There is nothing in the world like Russian sable to the touch," explained Wolfe, "and the average rich lady also knows the difference."