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Collecting: Fabergé Treasures

Sotheby's egg auction of the century gets preempted by a private bid that will return the entire Forbes Fabergé collection to Russia.
Jack Bettridge
From the Print Edition:
Andy Garcia, Mar/April 2004

The great Easter egg hunt of 2004 came earlier than expected. The nine magnificent Fabergé Imperial Easter eggs of the Forbes collection, to originally slated be sold in one phenomenal auction at Sotheby’s in New York City in April were snapped up privately in February by a Russian industrialist, who bought the eggs as well as a trove of other Fabergé objets de luxe for an undisclosed figure.

Victor Vekselberg, the chairman of SUAL Holdings, a Russian corporation with interests in oil and aluminum, as well as  Tyumen Oil, bought the collection in the name of a foundation he established. He said it represented “perhaps the most significant example of our cultural heritage outside Russia” and that he was honored to make it available to the Russian people.

The billionaire buyer is renowned for engineering the merger of Siberian Irkutsk Aluminium with Ural Aluminium in 1996, as well as for wooing foreign investors. Forbes Magazine sets his fortune at $2.5 billion and ranks him the fourth richest Russian. Vekselberg, 46, is also a member of the Board of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs. His other cultural contributions include restoring Russian monasteries and service on the board of trustees of the Bolshoi Theatre.

The auction reported that it was the largest sale it had ever brokered. While Sotheby’s had originally estimated the sale of the entire collection, including 180 other pieces, at $90 million to $130 million, it was thought the nine eggs alone might sell for as much as $94 million, with the most prized of the bejeweled, gold ovoid pieces going perhaps for $24 million. Before the early sale, Sotheby’s vice chairman David Redden had called the collection “a virtual Aladdin’s cave of treasures.”

But beyond monetary value, the collection is a link to tsarist Russia and a time of unimagined opulence. Many consider the eggs the sublimation of the art of the goldsmith. Others have conjectured that the eggs epitomized the excesses that led to revolution.

Gerard Hill, Sotheby’s senior worldwide Fabergé specialist, put the egg sale into context, noting that only seven had been sold at auctions since the end of the Second World War, each as single transactions. The one time more changed hands at once was in 1917, when the Bolsheviks nationalized the tsar’s property, ultimately executing most of his family.

In that light, Kip Forbes, vice chairman of Forbes, downplayed the loss of the eggs, which his father, Malcolm, began collecting in the mid-1960s, quipping, “We had them a lot longer than the original owners and the parting will be under less painful circumstances.” Forbes said the family had decided to divest the collection to concentrate on the corporation as their father’s more important legacy.

His father bought his first Imperial egg at the time of the magazine’s 50th anniversary, in 1967, coinciding with that of the Soviet Union, relishing the irony that his publication is known as the “capitalist tool.”

“When he became the sole shareholder in the company,” Forbes recalls of his father, “he polled all the shareholders and decided it would be in the interest of the company to start buying Fabergé.”

It was in a more exaggerated atmosphere of autonomy that the Imperial eggs were created. The first was commissioned of the House of Fabergé by Alexander III for his wife, Maria Feodorovna, as a gift for Easter 1885. It is the simplest of the lot: a gold egg enameled white with a golden yolk within, and within that a hen with ruby eyes. Inside the hen was the surprise (now lost): a replica of the imperial crown from which dangled another ruby. It is supposed that the gift was meant to clear the gloom that had hung over the royal couple since 1881, when they watched the agonizing death of the tsar’s father, Alexander II, after he was cut down by an assassin’s bomb.

So pleased was Alexander III with the gift that he charged Peter Carl Fabergé with creating a new egg  each Easter. The jeweler, the descendant of a Huguenot family that had fled religious persecution in France in the seventeenth century, seems to have been given free rein except that each egg would be unique and contain a surprise within. After the tsar’s death in 1894, the jeweler was asked by his successor, Nicholas II, to create two eggs each Easter—one for his mother, the dowager empress, and one for his wife, Alexandra. The request led to exquisite workmanship in an ever-changing variety of styles and inspirations. Fabergé’s biographer and onetime manager of his London shop, Henry Charles Bainbridge, called him “a genius on the rampage, always in search of something on which to vent his creative skill.”

The tradition of giving eggs—albeit nowhere near as grand—was long-standing, probably with pagan roots as a fertility symbol, although it was Christianized to signify the Resurrection. The Imperial Fabergé eggs, however, almost never had a religious theme. Each year’s installments were more likely to commemorate current events. Hence the Coronation Egg, given after Nicholas took the throne, and another that marked the completion of the Trans Siberian Railroad.

Fabergé would continue to create eggs until 1917, when his last two would not be delivered. In all, as many as 58 are believed to have been created. Eight are unaccounted for. Ten remain in the possession of the Kremlin. Armand Hammer, working on a humanitarian mission in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, persuaded Western collectors to buy many of the eggs from the cash-strapped, fledgling government. The dowager empress, who was rescued after the revolution, took with her The Order of St. George egg, the only one to leave Russia with its original recipient.

The jeweler fled Russia in 1918, dying in 1920 at age 74. He had always shrouded the eggs in mystery, keeping them a secret even from the tsar until delivery. Some were never photographed and the family displayed them but once. Fabergé rarely spoke of them, even to the sycophantic Bainbridge, who was able to elicit a price estimate (30,000 rubles each) from one of Fabergé’s sons years later. Hill declined to translate that value into today’s dollars, but likened the purchase to that of a one-off super sports car.

For his part, Kip Forbes, who recalls his father bringing eggs home in shopping bags, predicted their return to Russia, if not the buyer, when he said before the sale: “If Mr. Putin decides it’s in the national interest, he could come with a really big wallet.”

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