02 April 2013

Fabergé treasures in the USA

I have recently read the book Fabergé: Fantasies & Treasures, written by Geza von Habsburg and published by Universe in 1996.

Carl Fabergé (1846-1920) was born into a family in St Petersburg that created jewellery. The young man, trained in Russia and Germany, was in the right place and the right time. He had luck of course, but he also had great creative skills and beautiful crafts­manship - all three elements bringing him to the attention of the Russian Imperial Court.

He helped out in the Jewellery Gallery of the Hermitage and in time (in the mid-1880s) was named goldsmith and jeweller to the Russian court. His works were first displayed at the 1882 Pan-Slavic exhibition held in Moscow under the patronage of Czar Alexander III.

Napoleon Egg, 1912 
Battle of Borodino, Napoleon's 1812 invasion of Russia. 
Workmaster: Henrik Emanuel Wigström. Miniaturist: Vassily Ivanovich Zuiev
Tsar Nicholas II’s gift to his mother, Empress Maria Fyodorovna. 
On long term long to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Yet it was only when Alexander asked Fabergé to create a special Easter egg for the czarina that this iconic object was first invented. Fortunately for the Romanovs these eggs became an Easter tradit­ion throughout Alexander's reign, his son Nicholas II’s reign and on until the Russian Revolution in 1917. Of the 50 Fabergé eggs ever made, the von Habsburg book concentrated on those in the Pratt collection in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Clearly Carl Fabergé and his brother could not manage all the work themselves. They therefore decided to establish independent workshops, headed up by a Fabergé workmaster i.e a master craftsman who would produce works of art specifically and exclusively for the House of Fabergé. Nothing would be accepted by the Fabergés until and unless it had been approved by Carl.

So if there were many workmasters, why were their so few eggs ever completed? Apparently it took two years just to prepare for every single egg. Yet so famous were they that of the many thousands of jewels and art objects made by Fabergé, most peoples’ minds go straight to the relatively few Easter eggs.

My favourite was the Napoleonic Egg of 1912 which celebrated the 100th anniversary of the victory of the Russian armies over the dread­ed French emperor. Made of gold, enamel, diamonds, platinum, ivory, velvet and silk, this tiny egg was only 11.2 cms high. Yet it opened into 6 signed miniatures, each richly framed, which were later found in an album of drawings from the workshop of Henrik Wigström. Wigström had been one of the famous Fabergé workmasters who created stunning art objects during the 1903-1918 era.

Fabergé and his workshop made the most beautiful objects out of gold, enamel and hardstone; his picture frames, cigarette cases, clocks and silver animal decanters were created for the ruling families of Europe or any other patron wealthy enough to spend limitless sums of money. So it is appropriate that the book also presents gold, enamel, and hardstone pieces by the artist-jeweller. If I had to select which objects in the book were the most splendid, I would certainly select the guilloche enamels. von Habsburg did not reveal Faberge’s most zealously guarded secret i.e the process used to make his enamels.

Fabergé left Russia in 1918 and died in Switzerland in 1920. In 1924 sons Alexander and Eugéne re-opened Fabergé in Paris, where they continued to make the art objects that their father had been so successful with. To distinguish their pieces from those made in Russia before the Revolution, they used the trademark FABERGÉ PARIS.

Enamel guilloche picture frame, 
9 cms high, c1890 
workmaster's mark of Viktor Aarne St Petersburg, 
Photo credit Christie’s London 2010 
Realised £16,000 (USA $26,000) at auction

Louisiana heiress and philanthropist Matilda Geddings Gray (1885–1971) collected her first object by Fabergé in 1933, before just about anyone else in the USA. Over the following years, Matilda Geddings Gray amassed one of the best Fabergé collections in private hands, including the Imperial Napoleonic Easter Egg..

This book was written as a companion to the catalogue of the travelling “Fabergé In America” exhib­ition. The surprising element for me was that the author was almost as inter­est­ing as Carl Fabergé. Archduke Géza of Austria (b1940), is the son of Archduke Joseph Francis of Austria (1895–1957) and the grandson of King Frederick Augustus III of Saxony. Géza also happens to be a very experienced writer about Fabergé and was the curator of some important inter­nat­ional Fabergé exhibitions. In 1966 he joined the staff of Christie’s auction house in Switzerland. In 1980 he became Chairman of European Operations for the company. Later he became the Chairman, in New York and Geneva, for Habsburg Fine Art International Auctioneers. 

His work specialised in silver and gold, objects of vertu and Russian art. Habsburg served as the curator and organiser for Fabergé, Jeweller to the Tsars (1986-87), an exhibition held at Kunsthalle in Munich. Then while on the board of the Fabergé Arts Foundation, von Habsburg was chief curator of Fabergé, Imperial Court Jeweller (1993-94), which was shown in St Petersburg, Paris and London. He also served as guest curator of Fabergé in America (1996-97), which toured five cities in the USA.

For more stunning Fabergé objects and details about the donors and recipients, see the Fabergé Revealed Exhibition of Mar 2012. It shows the Bismark Box, an imposing Imperial presentation box that carried the donor’s portrait; it was inscribed by His Imperial Majesty Emperor Alexander III of Russia to His Serene Highness Prince von Bismarck Chancellor of the German Empire 1884. The German imperial chancellor was Europe’s most powerful and influential statesmen, and must have deserved the 90 carats of diamonds.


Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I saw the Faberge in America exhibit when it went to Cleveland (apparently one of four venues, with the Met, Virginia, and New Orleans.) I may have commented about it before; while the craftsmanship is stunning, that is the extent of my admiration.

While you needed a crowbar to wedge your way into the Faberge exhibit, a wonderful special exhibit of Thomas Eakins paintings the museum was hosting at the same time was completely empty. Even though this was the first time that all of the rowing pictures were displayed together, I literally had the entire gallery to myself.
--Road to Parnassus

Hels said...


the irony of your experience is that normally people will NOT go to look at the decorative arts in galleries and universities are reluctant to teach the so-called low arts. If it's not architecture, painting or sculpture, it ain't art!!

When I was writing my master's thesis 100 years ago, I could not find a senior lecturor who knew anything about my topic (gold and silver art).

Mandy Southgate said...

No - I can't believe only 50 Fabergé eggs were ever made! They are so iconic that I thought there were so many more. Then again, the term "Fabergé egg" has become synonymous with any jewelled egg, almost in the same way that French used to call pens Le Bic.

I guess that answers my decade-long question as to whether my aunt bought us a real Fabergé egg for our wedding.

Hels said...


I imagine that unless aunt's surname was Rockefeller or Rothschild, the beautiful wedding present was probably not signed by Carl. I say beautiful because only 50 were signed off as fair dinkum Faberges, the workmasters and other important jewellers could have made eggs of almost the same top quality, and sold them at a quarter of the price.

Be grateful! I got manchester for my wedding, and towels.