Fabergé Revealed Exhibition

10 Jul 2011
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Highlights from the Fabergé Revealed Exhibition

 Revolving Miniatures Egg


Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. Bequest of Lillian Thomas Pratt. Photo: Katherine Wetzel  Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

The Emperor Nicholas II gave this Egg to his wife, the Empress Alexandra Fedorovna for Easter 1896. Made of rock crystal, it is surmounted by a large cabochon Siberian emerald finial. It contains a dozen miniatures with gold frames showing views of palaces in Britain, Germany as well as Russia that have a personal association with the Empress. The miniatures revolve when the emerald finial is turned. The circular rock crystal plinth is mounted in gold with champlevé-enamelled monograms of the Empress as Princess Alix of Hesse and the Rhine prior to her marriage, as well as her monogram as Empress Alexandra Fedorovna of Russia.

Fabergé invoiced the Emperor 6750 roubles for this Egg in 1896. That was then around £675. The USSR’s Antikvariat, the Soviet agency that was established to sell art treasures outside of Russia, sold this Egg to Armand Hammer in 1930 for 8000 roubles. Until the mid-1940s, the Hammer Galleries in New York advertised it with a price tag of US$55,000. Mrs Pratt purchased it from the Galleries during 1940s for an unknown sum.

The Egg, including its integral base, is 24.77cm (9.75in) high.

Pelican Egg

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. Bequest of Lillian Thomas Pratt. Photo: Katherine Wetzel  Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

The Emperor Nicholas II gave this Egg to his mother, the Dowager Empress Maria Fedorovna for Easter 1898. In the Empire Style, it is a celebration of the hundredth anniversary of the founding of charitable institutions by the Empress Maria Fedorovna the wife of Paul I. The Dowager Empress was a Patroness of these institutions. The shell of the Egg bears the dates 1797 (visible here) and 1897 (on the reverse). A gold pelican surmounts the Egg, its body enamelled white, with outstretched diamond-set wings protecting its young. The pelican is the historic symbol of self-sacrifice, while its young in this case represent the daughters of the aristocracy.

This Egg does not contain a surprise, as the Pelican Egg itself is the surprise. This is because it unfolds to reveal eight gold frames each containing a miniature. The miniatures, which depict educational establishments in Saint Petersburg for ‘young ladies of means’, are each surrounded by seed pearls. The Egg rests on a stand of red, yellow and green gold decorated with the crowned heads of eagles.

Fabergé invoiced the Emperor 3600 roubles, then around £360. The Soviet’s Antikvariat sold the piece for 1000 roubles in 1930 to Armand Hammer. From that date until 1936 it was exhibited at the Hammer Galleries in New York. Mrs Pratt acquired it by instalments from 1936-8.

The Egg, excluding its stand, is 10.1cm (4in) high. With its stand, the overall height is 13.3cm (5.25in). When unfolded, the miniatures have an overall length of approximately 29cm (11.4in). The Egg’s original red velvet box has survived.

Peter the Great Egg

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. Bequest of Lillian Thomas Pratt. Photo: Katherine Wetzel  Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

The Emperor Nicholas II gave this Egg to his wife, the Empress Alexandra Fedorovna for Easter 1903. It commemorates the 200th anniversary of the founding of Saint Petersburg by Peter the Great. Its body of varicoloured gold is in the rococo-revival style and was inspired by a French nécessaire with a clock that is still in the Hermitage. The body of the Egg is rich in symbolism. In Russia roses and laurel leaves represent triumph and pride. The bulrushes shown in our image to the left and right of the portrait are there to symbolise the marshy land upon which Peter the Great built the city that bears his name. While the portrait of Nicholas II appears on one side of the Egg, Peter the Great’s portrait appears on the opposite side.

Apart from the portraits, the shell of the Egg bears two other watercolour medallions, which incidentally are painted on ivory and covered with rock crystal as opposed to glass for protection. At the back below 1703 in diamonds is a painting of the humble log cabin which is said to have been built with Peter the Great’s own hands on the site of Saint Petersburg. By contrast, at the front of the Egg under the date 1903 in diamonds, is a painting of the impressive and luxurious 1000 room Winter Palace at which Nicholas II resided and entertained.

The surprise of this Egg is a miniature replica of Etienne-Maurice Falconet’s statue of the Bronze Horseman, which is an equestrian statue of Peter the Great, commissioned by Catherine the Great in 1782. It still stands in Senate Square on the banks of Saint Petersburg’s river Neva and has become the symbol of the city. When the Egg is opened, the gilt bronze statue upon a sapphire rock (shaped as the original Thunder Stone pedestal) rises from the depths of the Egg. It is dramatically viewed against the golden yellow guilloché enamel of the Egg’s raised cover. The platform, railings and chain fencing that support and surround the model are all crafted in gold.

Fabergé invoiced the Emperor 9760 roubles for this Egg in 1903. In 1927 the Soviets valued it at 16,008 roubles. However, the USSR’s Antikvariat sold it to an unnamed buyer in 1933 for 4000 roubles. The buyer could well have been Alexandra Schaffer of New York’s Russian Imperial Treasures Inc. In 1941 the Schaffers formed a partnership with A la Vieille Russie (ALVR) of Paris and the Russian Imperial Treasures became ALVR of New York. Mrs Pratt agreed to purchase the Egg in 1942 for $16,5000. She paid for it in 33 monthly instalments ranging from $150 to $750 from February 1942 through to December 1944. Today, the Egg is probably worth upwards of $25 million.

The Egg is 10.8 cm (4.25in) high.

Tsarevich Egg

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. Bequest of Lillian Thomas Pratt. Photo: Katherine Wetzel  Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Alexei, the long-awaited heir to the Romanov dynasty was born to Emperor Nicholas II and the Empress Alexandra Fedorovna in 1904. Unfortunately in 1911 the Heir-Tsarevich fell seriously ill, as he had inherited haemophilia from his mother via the line of Queen Victoria. Alexei wavered for a time between life and death, but he survived, thanks in the Empress’s mind to the administrations of Rasputin. His miraculous recovery was therefore the inspiration for the 1912 Egg that the Emperor gave to his wife. In the regal rococo-style, the body and the cover of the Egg is formed from six segments of the finest lapis lazuli, making 12 in total. The egg was then embellished with gold cagework including double-headed eagles, hanging Chinoiserie canopies, scrolls, baskets of flowers, double-winged caryatids and sprays concealing the joints. The gold embellishments on the Egg’s body cover the joins of the segments. Unfortunately, as the image shows, a crack has developed in the stone on the right.

When the Egg is opened, its surprise slowly emerges. This is an oval diamond studded frame containing the portrait of the Tsarevitch painted on ivory set within a diamond embellished crowned double eagle. It is mounted on a lapis lazuli pedestal. However, there is a further surprise – turn the portrait around and instead of a leather or ivory backing, there is an image of the back of Alexei’s head. While the surprise of this Egg has survived, the gold stand that is known from a contemporary photograph in the Fabergé Family Archive is unfortunately missing.

The invoice for this Egg is missing too. However, it is known from the account books of His Imperial Majesty’s Cabinet that the two Eggs for 1912 – which are this one and the Napoleonic Egg that follows, cost 50,897.5 roubles. The USSR’s Antikvariat sold the Tsarevitch Egg in 1930 for 8000 roubles. Mrs Pratt bought the Egg from Armand Hammer’s exhibition at Lord & Taylor, New York in 1933.

The Egg is 12.5cm (4.9in) high. The surprise is 9.5cm (3.75in) high.

Napoleonic Egg

Matilda Geddings Foundation Collection

The Emperor Nicholas II gave this Egg to his mother, the Dowager Empress Maria Fedorovna for Easter 1912. It commemorates the centenary of Russia’s defeat of Napoleon’s armies at the Battle of Borodino in 1812. The celebration of this centenary was used to invoke patriotism in the country. This is one of the few Eggs for which the original design has survived. In 1992 an album of drawings from the workshop of Henrik Wigström, Fabergé’s leading workmaster from 1903-1918. The volume was discovered at a home in Finland in a bookcase that had not been touched for decades. The owners had been former neighbours of the Wigström family who fled to Finland after the Revolution and this was the source of the item.

The Egg is modelled in the Empire style favoured by Napoleon and popular within Imperial Russia. The watercolour of the Napoleonic Egg in the Wigström album shows an enamel ground with a pastel green bordering on the insipid. In the flesh the vivid ‘Empire green’ guilloché enamel has a vitality and brightness that caused some to remark at the Richmond private view that the lighting for this object was too bright. This was not the case, it was the boldness of the colour and vibrancy of the enamel that made the Egg radiate. The design on the ‘shell’ is also bold with alternate panels of the gold motifs of a double-headed eagle within a wreath and a collage of the trophies of war. Each panel is framed with pavé-set diamonds set between a discreet border of gold. A red guilloché enamel band runs horizontally above and below the panels and vertically between them. These are embellished with gold laurel leaves with stylised flower heads at the intersections.

The surprise within the Egg is a folding screen of six miniatures, each representing a regiment of which the Dowager Empress was honorary colonel. Painted by Vasilii Zuiev, the miniatures are very fine and detailed. The elongated octagonal frames are superior to any other frames found as surprises in the Imperial Eggs. The apertures surrounding the images are pavé-set with rose-cut diamonds, while the actual frames take the form of enamelled laurel wreaths bound together with bands of diamonds. These are joined by vertical fasces (historical bundles of rods carried by an official accompanying a consul in ancient Rome) that are surmounted by a projecting axe head. The fasces are also tied by diamond bands, which also conceal the hinges. The reverses of the frames are equally magnificent. Each one bears a brilliant green guilloché enamel roundel with the Dowager Empress’s crowned cypher in Cyrillic script set in pavé-set rose-cut diamonds. This is framed in gold with a wreath of chased laurel leaves. Each framed roundel is placed centrally on a panel of opalescent white enamel upon a guilloché sunburst ground. A band of brilliant green guilloché enamel borders this. The outer gold frame of the reverse is chased with laurel leaves on the uppermost five sides, while a description identifying the regiment depicted on the obverse appears on the lower three sides.

This Egg was more than an Eastertide gift. The defeat of Napoleon – ‘the Corsican Monster’ – was – and in fact still is – regarded as a major event in Russian history. Possibly it was considered the centenary should be marked by something special.

The invoice for this Egg is missing. However, it is known from the account books of His Imperial Majesty’s Cabinet that the two Eggs for 1912 – which are this one and the previously described Tsarevich Egg, cost 50,897.5 roubles. The USSR’s Antikvariat sold the Napoleonic Egg in 1930 for 5000 roubles. Matilda Geddings Gray subsequently bought it from the Hammer Galleries, New York.

The Egg has a height of 11.75cm (4.62in). The Egg’s original stand has survived, but its height in the stand has not been recorded.

Red Cross Egg with Portraits

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. Bequest of Lillian Thomas Pratt. Photo: Katherine Wetzel  Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

The Emperor Nicholas II gave this Egg to his mother, the Dowager Empress Maria Fedorovna for Easter 1915. His mother, as well as the Emperor’s sisters Xenia and Olga and other members of the Imperial Family were actively involved in Red Cross in a nursing or other capacity. For example, the Dowager Empress was President of the Red Cross and members of the Imperial Family served as Sisters of Mercy at a hospital at Tsarskoye Selo. This involvement provides the subject for this Egg. Following the outbreak of World War I, the Emperor instituted austerity measures. This is one of the first Eggs to have been designed and made following those instructions. Its body is covered with opalescent white guilloché enamel. The central band bears two red enamelled crosses and the date 1914, together with biblical text in gold Church Slavonic lettering, Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his comrades. As with the Napoleonic Egg, the surprise again is a gold folding screen, but this time with five oval portraits within gold borders of white guilloché enamel. The sitters are dressed as Sisters of Mercy and a white roundel bearing a red enamelled cross surmounts each portrait.

The reverses of the portraits are mother-of-pearl, each of which bear the cypher of the sitter in gold, with an Imperial Crown above, The sitters are, from left to right: Grand Duchess Olga, the Emperor’s sister; Grand Duchess Olga, his eldest daughter; his wife, the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna; Grand Duchess Tatiana, his second daughter and Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna, his first cousin. Interestingly, the hinges of the folding screen are clearly visible. Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna was the sister of Dimitri Pavlovich, a participant in the murder of the infamous Rasputin.

The Emperor paid 3559.5 roubles for this Egg. The USSR’s Antikvariat sold it in 1930 for just 500 roubles. Mrs Pratt purchased it in 1933 at Armand Hammer’s exhibition at Lord & Taylor’s department store in New York.

The Egg has a height of 8.9cm (3.5 in).

The Leuchtenberg Diamond Tiara

Arthur and Dorothy McFerrin Foundation Collection. Photograph: Courtesy of Houston Museum of Natural History  C & M Photographers

This Fabergé tiara is the first piece that visitors to Fabergé Revealed see. It is a stunning ‘first glimpse’ of the treasures that follow. It has also been erroneously known as the Empress Josephine Tiara, but as it was made by Fabergé’s workmaster August Holmström in circa 1890 and the Empress died in 1814, it was certainly never hers!

The tiara was inherited by Queen Maria José (1906-2001) the last Queen of Italy, from her brother Prince Charles Theodore (1903-83), the second son of King Albert I of Belgium. However, there is a connection to the Empress Josephine as the briolette-cut (ie drop-shaped) diamonds in the tiara were a gift from Emperor Alexander I of Russia to her when he visited La Malmaison following her divorce from Napoleon, perhaps as a part-payment for an important collection of old master paintings which the Emperor acquired from her, which is still in the Hermitage today. Prince Charles’s father bought it during World War I in Switzerland when the Bavarian Dukes of Leuchtenberg sold their collection. This title was given to Eugène de Beauhamais, the son of the Empress Josephine and the adopted stepson of Napoleon, when Eugène married Princess Augusta of Bavaria. Their youngest son married the eldest daughter of Emperor Nicholas I, which explains why diamonds given by an Emperor of Russia to the Empress Josephine, landed up in the tiara of a Russian princess made by Fabergé.

The tiara is quite small being just 13.2cm (5.2in) wide.

The Bismarck Box

Courtesy The Hodges Family Collection

This imposing Imperial presentation snuff-box is one of the most famous Fabergé pieces in The Hodges Family Collection. Its base is inscribed (in French) Presented by His Imperial Majesty Emperor Alexander III of Russia to His Serene Highness Prince von Bismarck Chancellor of the German Empire 1884. The Prince was the driving force behind the establishment of a unified Germany in 1871. As the German imperial chancellor from 1871-1890, he was Europe’s was powerful and influential statesmen.

Jewelled boxes bearing the donor’s portrait became the established gift from European royalty to foreign dignitaries and deserving subjects in the late 17th century. When snuff became popular in the late 18th century, the boxes became smaller and therefore could be used as table snuff-boxes. Although by the end of the 19th century the taking of snuff was no longer considered polite in Court circles, gifts of snuff-boxes by monarchs were still considered acceptable. However, this is believed to be the only Imperial presentation snuff-box bearing the portrait of Alexander III, although his son Emperor Nicholas II bestowed 54 from 1895-1916.

This box is important, as it is believed to be the first major commission Fabergé received from the Emperor. (However, the invoice in the archive of the Cabinet of His Imperial Majesty in Saint Petersburg is strangely dated 1889.) The box is larger than most, as indeed are the stones. Originally the array of diamonds amounted to a total of 90 carats. However, the Bismarck family subsequently removed all the large stones and replaced them with antique paste brilliants. The removed diamonds were made into a necklace, which the family still owns. The only diamonds in the box today are the small rose-cut ones.

The box is 11.4cm (4.5in) wide.

Nobel Ice Egg

Arthur and Dorothy McFerrin Foundation Collection. Photograph: Courtesy of Houston Museum of Natural History  C & M Photographers

In addition to making the series of Easter Eggs for the Imperial family, a small number were made by commission. Seven were made for the heiress Varvara Kelkh. Single Eggs were also made for Germaine Halphen on the occasion of her engagement to Baron Edouard de Rothschild; the Duchess of Marlborough; Prince Felix Yusupov and Dr Emmanuel Nobel, a Swedish-Russian oil baron and resident of Russia, whose younger brother was the Alfred Nobel of the Nobel Peace Prize fame.

Dr Nobel was one of Fabergé’s most important clients. He had a penchant for ‘frosted snowflakes’ and Fabergé supplied him with a series of ‘snowflake’ jewellery that he gave to his female guests at dinner parties and on other occasions. The exterior of Nobel Ice Egg is enamelled in translucent white over engraved ‘frosted snowflakes’ and is set with two rows of seed pearls, around its ‘long’ middle. The design was conceived by one of Fabergé’s most talented designers Alma Theresia Pihl, who also designed the Winter and Mosaic Eggs. The snowflake theme is continued on the Egg’s surprise – a pendant watch – fashioned from rock crystal, platinum and diamonds.

The height of the Egg is 7cm (2.75in).

Coiling Serpent Paperweight

Courtesy The Hodges Family Collection

This fierce-looking object resided in the study of the Dowager Empress Maria Fedorovna at the Cottage Palace, Alexandria Park, Peterhof. It was recorded in the 1910 Inventory of the Palace Cottage as a paperweight, but as Dr Dan Hodges (who is one of the premier private collectors of Fabergé in the US) comments, it would function more appropriately as a decorative sculpture. Crafted in silver by Johan Victor Aarne, it is mounted on Persian turquoise. Paperweight or ornament, it is certainly dramatic.

The paperweight is 19.5cm (7.7in) wide.

Rowanberry Sprig

Courtesy The Hodges Family Collection

This botanical study is the work of Fabergé’s workmaster Henrik Wigström. Crafted from rock crystal, gold, nephrite and purpurine, this rowanberry sprig is similar to one in the British Royal Collection. The choice of purpurine for the berries is very effective. This material was invented in the 17th century and was introduced into Russia by the Imperial Glass Factory. Fabergé resurrected its use and his competitors followed his move.

The study has a height of 19.1cm (7.5in).

Fire-Screen Photograph Frame

Arthur and Dorothy McFerrin Foundation Collection. Photograph: Courtesy of Houston Museum of Natural History  C & M Photographers

This is a superb example of the goldsmith’s art. It was created in the workshop of Fabergé’s workmaster Henrik Wigström around 1910. Inspired by a two-sided Louis XVI fire-screen, one side contains a photograph of Emperor Nicholas II and the other of his Empress, Alexandra Feodorovna. This was a gift from the Emperor to his mother, the Dowager Empress Maria Fedorovna. The gold and platinum frame is enamelled white and seed pearls are set round the oval bezels. The whole is embellished with floral swags in multi-coloured gold. It is a stunning piece.

The frame is 18.4cm (7.1in) high.

Lilies of the Valley Basket

Matilda Geddings Foundation Collection

Regarded as Fabergé’s best flower study and after the Imperial Eggs, his best work, it was a gift to the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna in the year of her Coronation. Given the beauty of the piece, it is surprising that it was a gift from ‘the ironworks management and dealers in the Siberian iron section of the Pan-Russian Exhibition at the occasion of her visit to Nizhny Novgorod in 1896’. The nine individual plants have 19 gold stems, each one bearing pearl blossoms edged with silver set with rose-cut diamond petals. The silver has now oxidised black, but returning the silver to its original colour is a very difficult task, as the chemicals needed to do this would damage the pearls. Then there are the nephrite leaves fashioned and carved with the fibrous striations The plants sit in a bed of moss formed of spun, fused, clipped and randomly-polished green and yellow gold in a basket formed from strips of gold so as to resemble wickerwork. Lilies of the Valley were the Empress’s favourite flowers. She so loved this gift – which looks so realistic – that it sat on her desk… until the Revolution of course.

The basket is 19cm (7.5in) wide.

Star Frame

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. Bequest of Lillian Thomas Pratt. Photo: Katherine Wetzel  Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Formed from two superimposed gold triangles, one with opalescent-white sunray guilloché enamel with a gadrooned border, the other with yellow enamel against the same ground but with a pointed scallop border. The circular bezel is set with seed pearls. The photograph within the frame is an original one of Grand Duchess Tatiana, the second daughter of Emperor Nicholas II and the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna.

The Emperor and Empress purchased this frame jointly from Fabergé on 3 December 1896 for a cost of 120 roubles. The Emperor was billed 60 roubles and the Empress the same sum, but her invoice was in German as opposed to Russian. It is thought that they chose a star-shaped frame as the stellar form reflected the high regard they had for Tatiana, whose image was to grace the frame.

The Emperor renounced the throne on 15 March 1917. Initially the Emperor and his family were placed under house arrest at Alexander Palace, Tsarskoye Selo, but in the August they were evacuated, together with a small retinue, to Toblosk in Siberia. In April 1918 they were moved to the ‘House of Special Purpose’ at Ekaterinburg, also in Siberia. It was here on the night of 16 July there were taken to the cellar and murdered, as their captors feared the approach of counter-revolutionaries.

Afterwards, Iakov Iurovskii the executioner’s commandant carefully listed the Imperial family’s possessions. This included a, ‘Gold frame, star-shaped with white and yellow enamel’, which as Fabergé’s creations were generally one-of-a-kind, is the frame illustrated here. The fact that the Imperial couple took the frame with them to Siberia indicates that this was one of their most cherished possessions. It would appear that the USSR’s Antikvariat sold the frame to Armand Hammer for in 1934 the Hammer Galleries were offering it for $365. It was purchased by Mrs Pratt and is now in the VMFA collection.

This is believed to be the only object that survives from the possessions the Imperial Family took with them to Siberia.

The frame has a diameter of 7.7cm (3.6in).

Imperial Column Portrait Frame

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. Bequest of Lillian Thomas Pratt. Photo: Katherine Wetzel  Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

According to the Fabergé scholar Valentin Skurlov, the table portrait was introduced in Russia as an Imperial gift at the end of Alexander II’s reign in about 1880. Portraits of monarchs incorporated into rings, badges, but particularly boxes, had been popular at Western Courts, including Russia, for many years. Emperor Nicholas II presented the regent of Persia, Nãsir al-Mulk, with square enamelled gold frame embellished with diamonds containing his oval portrait miniature in 1914. A variant of this approach was a bejewelled miniature set on a gold column.

The Column Portrait Frame in Fabergé Revealed is such an Imperial presentation gift. Surmounted by a laurel wreath, the symbol of a war hero, it was commissioned in 1908 by Emperor Nicholas II to mark Field Marshall-General Count Dimitrii Alekseevich Miliutin’s 75th anniversary as an officer. The Count was 92 when the award was made. His having reached such a ripe old age presented the Emperor with a slight problem, for this venerable military man had received a cornucopia of Imperial awards during his distinguished and loyal service to the House of Romanov. In 1906 Fabergé had submitted four designs to the Ministry of the Imperial Court for column portrait frames. In the days of ancient Rome the Emperors were often featured on half columns, as indeed were the gods.

The problem as what to give the Count something prestigious was solved with this Column Portrait Frame. Indeed, it was the first to be given. There are only five known examples. In addition to the Count’s, presentations were made for one in 1910 and another in 1911. The Emperor ordered two further column portrait frames rom the Imperial Cabinet in 1913 for his personal use.

The column including the wreath and base is 15.2cm (6in) in height.