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Last November, during Russia Art Week in London, an imposing van with blacked-out windows was parked in close proximity to the capital’s bustling auction houses. The vehicle, emblazoned with the word “Fabergé”, belongs to Russian collector Alexander Ivanov, who was busy buying up items made by Peter Carl Fabergé (1846-1920), a name synonymous with opulence, wealth and healthy art market returns.
Fabergé’s workshops in Moscow and St Petersburg, which employed more than 500 craftsmen at the end of the 19th century, are known for their fantastic Easter eggs made for the Russian Imperial court: Fabergé was appointed Imperial goldsmith in 1885.
Royal patronage was key to the brand’s success; the London branch sold more than 10,000 objects between 1903 and 1915, with King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra among its clients. “Fabergé’s flair for combining exquisite design and technical skill meant that the firm soon became the most popular supplier of gifts for the wealthy elite,” says the UK’s Royal Collection Trust.
Today, a new wealthy elite is hunting down Fabergé objects. Ivanov is a man on a mission: in 2009, he opened a gallery, the Fabergé Museum in the German spa town of Baden-Baden, and he has to fill it. “There are around 2,000 items in his Fabergé and ancient gold jewellery collection,” said his spokesman, who added that in early 2013, Ivanov’s collection was divided with his ex-wife. Last month the museum unveiled an intriguing acquisition: the 1,400-piece banquet service of the Maharaja of Patiala, which was first used at a state dinner in 1922.
Ivanov made his fortune by importing computers into Russia as a student. He sold the hardware to Soviet industries in the early 1990s, generating huge profits. He candidly admits that he now acts as a quasi-dealer to eastern European oligarchs, using the proceeds to fund his acquisitions.
“Three dozen Fabergé items that Ivanov bought at Sotheby’s and Christie’s in November were rather small pieces,” his spokesman said. His most notable purchase was a Fabergé jewelled and enamelled gold flower study, made around 1900, for £350,500 at Sotheby’s. But Ivanov’s watershed moment came in 2007 when he spent £9m (estimate £6m-£9m) at Christie’s London on a 1902 Fabergé egg made as an engagement gift for Baron Edouard de Rothschild, a member of the French banking dynasty. The gold-and-pink enamel egg incorporates a clock with a diamond-set cockerel that pops up on the hour.
But this long-held passion has hit a few hurdles. A legal battle has been reignited between Ivanov and the London-based Fabergé Ltd over the trademark rights to the Fabergé name. Ivanov maintains that he owns the “finished” version of Fabergé’s 1917 Constellation Egg, a claim disputed by the Fersman Mineralogical Museum in Moscow.
And there is now another “Fabergé museum”. Russian oil and mining magnate Viktor Vekselberg has reportedly spent $30m renovating the Shuvalovsky Palace on the Fontanka Embankment in St Petersburg, turning the 18th-century building into a grandiose museum for his 4,000-piece collection of pre-Soviet fine and decorative art, due to open in a few weeks. Silk wallpaper and captivating chandeliers crown the main attraction: nine Fabergé eggs, the largest cluster in a private collection.
Early in 2004, Vekselberg swooped on almost 200 Fabergé pieces, including the eggs set, from the Forbes family collection: it was due to be sold at Sotheby’s, but the sale was cancelled after Vekselberg bought the entire haul privately. He told Esquire magazine last year that he paid “slightly more than $100m” for the holdings.
In that interview, the billionaire comes across as an avuncular, even humorous figure (he declined to comment for this piece, cultivating the image of a taciturn oligarch). He acknowledges that a deal in 2012 between the Kremlin-controlled oil producer Rosneft and the AAR consortium, of which he is a member, boosted his coffers, reportedly by around $1.5bn (Rosneft agreed to purchase AAR’s 50 per cent stake in TNK-BP for around $28bn).
“I would like to say thank you to BP, because I became rich and could use part of that money for this important collection of cultural artefacts,” he said. He also quipped that he’s never had “any of the eggs in my house. It would look terrible if I put some Imperial eggs on my buffet.”
Tsar Alexander III began the most expensive Easter tradition in history when he decided to give a jewelled egg to his wife, Empress Maria Fyodorovna, in 1885. Known as the Hen Egg, its white enamelled shell opens to reveal a yolk whose yellow mass is crafted from gold, and shimmers against the museum’s lavish, 18th-century rococo walls.
From 1895, the royal heir Nicholas II continued to honour the family matriarchs, presenting Fabergé eggs annually to both his wife, Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna, and his mother Maria. In 1897, the newly crowned tsar gave Alexandra the Coronation Egg, with a trellis of diamond-set Imperial eagles embroidered across the lime-green shell. Inside is a sumptuous surprise: a removable replica of the horse-drawn coach that carried Alexandra to the coronation ceremony. “This egg cost around Rbs5,500 at the time,” said museum curator Alexey Pomigalov.
Nestled beneath the pink enamelled Lilies of the Valley Egg, dated 1898, is a trio of portraits representing Nicholas II and his two daughters, the Grand Duchesses Olga and Tatiana. A mischievous plumed cockerel emerges out of the Cuckoo (Cockerel) egg, 1900, which is in the form of a baroque table clock.
The Imperial egg-giving tradition continued until 1916. In total, 50 eggs were made for the Romanov dynasty; eight are still unaccounted for. These decorative trophies very rarely come on to the market as most are already in museums. Several US museums boast prime examples, including the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, which has two. The Kremlin Armoury in Moscow owns 10, but as Pomigalov points out: “We have a more valuable collection from a historical perspective, possessing the first and last eggs made: the Hen Egg in 1885, and then the Renaissance Egg of 1916.”
Vekselberg, who also runs the Aurora Fine Art investment fund, has not – excuse the pun – put all his eggs in one basket: his museum also houses around 1,500 other Fabergé pieces, including “Cabinet gifts” made to commemorate important occasions such as diplomatic visits. A trove of glistening snuff boxes are adorned with monograms of the royal family and objets de fantaisie – playful pieces intended as “perfect gifts”, as Carl Fabergé put it – include a delicate watering can studded with semi-precious stones.
Fabergé’s prices are holding up well, thanks in part to the efforts of Ivanov and Vekselberg. “Two people can drive a market, and this one is still quite narrow,” says Geoffrey Munn, managing director of Wartski, a firm established in London in 1911 by Emanuel Snowman, one of the first western dealers to bring works by Fabergé out of post-revolutionary Russia.
At Christie’s London in November, 16 Fabergé items (out of a total of 17), including a series of jewelled elephants from the estate of Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, all sold well above estimate.
Helen Culver Smith, specialist in Russian works of art at Christie’s, says: “About 80 per cent of buyers in this market are Russian-speaking. Established buyers in the US and Europe are still active but we’re also seeing more Middle Eastern and Asian buyers in this area.”
Munn crystallises perfectly why Fabergé eggs continue to appeal. “These are antiques with a hint of icing sugar,” he says. “It’s all about uncomplicated pleasure.”