Fabergé at the Virginia Museum

09 Jul 2011
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Fabergé Revealed: An exhibition at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, United States

Upon her death in 1947, Mrs Lillian Thomas Pratt bequeathed nearly 500 items to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Of these, around 80 per cent were devoted to the Russian decorative arts, with many being by Fabergé. Today, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) has 323 objects by, or attributed to, the Fabergé workshops. While a large majority of these are from Mrs Pratt’s bequest, there have been gifts from others, while the VMFA has added 18 significant Fabergé pieces over the last 10 years. The Museum has the largest Fabergé collection in the US.

In addition to being the largest, the VMFA’s Fabergé collection features some of Fabergé’s finest pieces. There are five Fabergé Imperial Easter Eggs. Of the 50 that were made and delivered, 42 have survived and only 13 of these are in the US. However, these are not the only Imperial pieces in Mrs Pratt’s Collection. There are Imperial gifts, personal Fabergé possessions of the Imperial family, including the only surviving object from among the treasures taken by the Imperial family to their exile in Siberia.

If this was not enough, Fabergé Revealed is supplemented with loans from distinguished private collections. From the Matilda Geddings Gray Foundation Collection there is another Fabergé Imperial Easter Egg, bringing the number at the exhibition to six, as well as the Lilies of the Basket, regarded as Fabergé’s best flower study and after the Imperial Easter Eggs, his best work. From the Arthur and Dorothy McFerrin Foundation Collection there is a Fabergé tiara set with diamonds that Emperor Alexander I gave to Empress Josephine, wife of Emperor Napoleon I of France and an Imperial fire-screen frame owned by the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna. There is also a non-Imperial Egg – the Nobel Ice Egg.

To complement what is already an excellent exhibition, over 100 pieces from the Hodges Family Collection are exhibited. The highlight here is the Bismarck Box, an enamelled gold and bejewelled snuffbox bearing a miniature portrait of Alexander III. The Emperor gave it to Prince Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck, the Chancellor of the German Empire in 1884. The consensus is that this is the first major commission received by the House of Fabergé from the Emperor. Perhaps the most dramatic piece in the Hodges Family Collection is the paperweight in the form of a coiling serpent set on a Persian turquoise boulder. In 1917 the Bolshevik government confiscated it from the study of the Dowager Empress in the Cottage Palace at Alexandria Park, Peterhof.

Dr Géza von Hapsburg, Fabergé’s Curatorial Director, has curated the exhibition. He is no stranger to arranging Fabergé exhibitions round the globe. His previous include Fabergé, Jeweler to the Tsars (1986-87) at the Kunsthalle in Munich, Germany, and Fabergé in America, seen at the VMFA as well as in museums in four other US cities (1996-97). He was chief curator of the exhibition Fabergé, Imperial Court Jeweler, which was shown in Saint Petersburg, Paris and London (1993-94). He has also written, or co-authored, a dozen books on Fabergé and related topics. The exhibition is displayed in a spacious suite of dedicated galleries on the Museum’s lower ground floor. Superbly displayed, each of the six Fabergé Imperial Easter Eggs is shown in cases that give the viewer the opportunity to examine the pieces from every angle. This is a considerable improvement to just giving visitors a ‘full-frontal’ view. The result is a Fabergé show of some 500 pieces. While previous exhibitions have exhibited up to 1000 or more objects, this is currently the largest Fabergé exhibition open to the public worldwide.

As well as genuine Fabergé from a monumental silver kovsh to a multitude of miniature Easter eggs (the variety of the designs, cannot but fail to amaze), there is also a display of fakes, or Fauxbergé to use the word Géza has coined to describe the Fabergé look-alikes or forged (faux) objects that have been found on the West’s art market since the 1930s. These have been given their own display case. This appears towards the end of the exhibition. By this time, having had a cornucopia of genuine Fabergé as a feast for the eyes, discerning visitors should also be able to distinguish between pieces from the original Fabergé workshops and those that are by a later and different hand.

To book tickets for Fabergé Revealed, please click here