They draw their inspiration from the remarkable story of the ‘Viera’, a collection of Fabergé items which were discovered in 1990 in a tin candy box during reconstruction of an old Moscow mansion. ‘It was certainly a serendipitous moment’, recalled Tatiana Fabergé with a beam on her face.
‘I was in Moscow and called to see Tatiana Muntian the Fabergé Curator at the Kremlin Armoury Museum. On the table were two old battered candy tins that they were about to open. Their contents were unbelievable. They had been discovered under a windowsill at a typical early 19th century Moscow mansion in Solyanka Street.’
Pavel Ivanovich Kharitonenko had bought the mansion at auction in 1909. Known as the ‘Sugar King’ because of his wealth generated from growing sugar beet that was refined into sugar at his numerous refineries, he was one of Russia’s wealthiest men. However, he was far more than a business magnate. He was a patron of the arts purchasing the works of contemporary Russian artists such as Ilya Repin and Valentin Serov, one of the premier portrait artists of his day. He also had a significant collection of French paintings. Indeed, the artist Francois Flameng worked on the decoration of the Sugar King’s St Petersburg palace in the early 1890s. In brief, he was a flamboyant, wealthy man, a patron of the arts with impeccable tastes who counted Sergei Diaghilev among his friends.
The Kharitonenkos had the Solyanka Street mansion renovated to their taste. ‘Of course the Sugar King was a client of Fabergé’, said Tatiana. As anybody who was anybody made purchases from Fabergé, a person with the Sugar King’s wealth would lavish jewels of the master on loved ones. She continued, ‘But what I did not know at the time of the discovery was that Vladimir Averkiev, a member of the Moscow branch of Fabergé lived in a flat at the Solyanka Street mansion. His partner was Chinese.’ Averkiev was also relatively wealthy. Indeed, in 1913 he purchased the factory of Bolin and became the landlord of one of Fabergé’s competitors. In 1916 he was also an important shareholder in Fabergé.
The Sugar King and his wife Viera, like many wealthy Russians prior to the Revolution, continued their lives without noticing the undercurrents of unrest in the country. They were cocooned in their own little world of wealth and privilege surrounded by beautiful objects.
However, Viera’s world was shattered in 1914 when her beloved Pavel died. She inherited all his wealth. 1914 was also the start of difficult times for Fabergé. World War I meant that many of the craftsmen and workers were required to join the military and the demand for fine jewels diminished. The firm began to produce copper articles such as cruets, plates, mugs and snuff boxes. The workshops also made syringes as well as equipment and parts for the military, including grenades. Peter Carl Fabergé became increasingly concerned regarding the situation in Russia. After the revolution when matters became particularly chaotic, senior members of staff in St Petersburg were given small packets of jewels to hide in locations well away from the Fabergé premises. We now know that the same happened in Moscow.
So let’s go back to Tatiana Fabergé’s serendipitous moment. ‘It was all very exciting. The two tins were wrapped in a pre-revolution poster. One of them had a dent in the lid which is believed was caused by the Bolsheviks breaking into the mansion by smashing the window and climbing in over the windowsill under which the treasure was hidden! If only they knew how close they were to treasure. When the lids were opened both were full of jewellery pieces of the highest quality, sparkling as if they had just been lifted from a display cabinet. Most had their price tags attached. There was a superb sapphire and diamond pendant. The beautifully rich blue sapphires are not only invisibly set, but are placed on a flexible elongated eclipse of gold that ends in a pendeloque-cut diamond. Who said that invisible settings were invented in the 1930s? Fabergé was always at the cutting edge of innovation.’