Square Easter Eggs
By MICHEL KAMIDIAN and VYACHESLAV MUKHIN
Translation of the book “The Fabulous Epoch of Faberge”
Catalogue of the exhibition:
The Fabulous Epoch of Faberge at the Catherine Palace in Tsarskoye Selo, Saint Petersburg 1992.
Much is said and written concerning Carl Fabergé’s art and life; few figures in the history of art have been so meticulously scrutinized. Still, new publications in various periodicals, books, as well as auction and exhibition catalogues add something annually to this wealth of information. This notwithstanding Faberge is becoming a real legend and sometimes it is very difficult to tell where a myth begins. It plays a positive role, especially in regard to the popularity of his production with the Western art market. Figures of price lists are steadily climbing and publicity is having an enormous impact as well. If this is so, why can’t Easter eggs be square?
One of the leading masters of Faberge’s firm, F. Birbaum, left us a description of an incident quite characteristic of Carl Fabergé. Annoyed by a boring client who desired something absolutely novel in the form of an Easter egg, the famous master announced with an innocent air, that in a fortnight they were expecting some square eggs to arrive from the workshop. Some of the people present at the scene smiled, some felt embarrassed, but the lady was absolutely gullible. The firm never produced Easter cubes. When the client arrived she was given explanations by ‘old Fabergé’ himself who told her that he failed to do the work. Still, what the artist failed to do, proved to be quite practical for his later critics and experts of his work. They have hastily ascribed many pieces unconnected with the firm to Fabergé’s firm while some quite characteristic works with their artistic and technical merits, are still considered anonymous or attributed to some foreign craftsmen. This concerns the mass production of the firm as well as the unique Imperial Easter Eggs. Special publications abound with mistakes of this kind, as various auction catalogues, are often full of incorrect attributions. Everybody can learn from such publications the fact that all the articles carved of colored stones in Russia are divided into three groups: Fabergé’s work, pieces in Faberge style, and anonymous works. This system has not been an obstacle to commerce for many years, yet, it is, in no way connected with the real history of Russian art.
It is commonly known that Fabergé’s firm had some rivals in St. Petersburg. Among those was Verfel’s stone-cutting and bronze-casting works, which sometimes supplied large quantities of stone production. Besides, in St. Petersburg also, there were prosperous firms of Denisov-Uralski and Sveshnikov. This list of competitors includes (since 1904) Pierre Cartier, head of a large trading house in Paris who had been purchasing not only stone pieces by St. Petersburg craftsmen but also those of the Yekaterinburg masters, Lagutin and Surov. There was a funny incident connected with Cartier’s trade in Russia. In 1907, the Russian Empress Maria Fyodorovna, on her way back from Biarritz via Paris, honored Cartier’s firm (well known in Russia) with a visit. The arrival of ‘the Northern Semiramide’, wearing a ten-strand pearl necklace, with pearls as large as a dove’s egg, impressed even the jaded Parisians. Pearls at the time were fabulously expensive; still, of all the choice pieces offered to her by the owner, the Dowager Empress selected a few hair pins and two stone hares. For a farewell, undoubtedly meant as a compliment, the lady remarked that she would like to be able to make such purchases in St. Petersburg. The French jewelers were left musing on what would prevent her from doing so.
It is a difficult task to trace the source of every object in the wide stream of Russian carved stone articles that were brought to the West at different times, as well as those that occasionally appear at auctions. The vast sea of modern imitations, into which the stream tends to flow, makes it even more difficult. Yet, the failures of art experts are more evident when well-known and typical pieces by Faberge and his contemporaries are involved.
Henry Bainbridge, a leading Western expert on Fabergé, and his manager in London, wrote prophetically: “Anyone intimately associated with Faberge soon learned that the only thing to expect from him was continual surprise”. To confirm this, the author adds a striking revelation: “For instance, it took me many years to find out that Fabergé was making the Imperial Easter Eggs.
Himself, he had never mentioned this fact” ₄. Having published it in the Connoisseur, 1935, Henry Bainbridge never again spoke of it; instead, his later publications were interpreted in many ways by many of his followers. In his book on Fabergé’s art, published in 1949, the expert was a bit too cautious in attributing one of the pieces of his former boss, probably because his memories of their cooperation had faded by that time. The piece in question was a well-known basket with wild flowers made of precious metals and stones, kept in Her Majesty, the Queen of England’s collection. Though Bainbridge was sure the basket was produced by Fabergé’s firm, he didn’t dare to classify it among the glorious Easter presents given by Tsar Nicholas II to his mother and to the Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna. It was possibly due to the shape of the piece, nearly a semi-sphere, different from most of the Easter gifts traditionally formed as an egg that alarmed the historiographer of the firms’ art. Thus, as there was no direct evidence, such as archival data or stamps on the piece itself, the art experts failed, and the Easter gift was classified as a Faberge imitation. As it is often the case, the inaccuracy of the first examination was the thin end of a wedge. Further errors were to follow. While discovering graffiti on the basket’s surface, Kenneth Snowman suggested in his 1979 book, that the basket was a piece made by the Paris jeweler F. Boucheron, under the evident influence of the famous Russian firm. Other experts, former consultants to leading auction houses, Géza Von Habsburg and Alexander Von Solodkoff, took up this version in their book published in the same year₆. It was only in 1986 that a corrected attribution appeared in the catalogue of a Munich exhibition of Faberge’s work₇. Basing their judgment of the fact that objects of the kind were not mentioned in Boucheron’s archives, and referring to the discrepancy of the style of the basket with flowers with the general style of the French firm, the authors thought it was possible to attribute the piece to Fabergé. Yet, this was done unwillingly. In the catalogue, the photograph of the basket was included in a section assigned to Fabergé’s rivals and followers. The story of many decades through which the masterpiece of Goldsmithery was given its identity and glory, found its happy conclusion only in 1991. It was only then that experts found archival information in St. Petersburg. The basket found its place in a chronological chart describing the annual Easter presents from the Tsar to his loved ones. Charts similar to this, with some blank spaces for yet undiscovered gifts, are often found in the publications of the mentioned authors.
Last year witnessed an event, not so noticeable but rather typical for the modern silverware market, Fabergé’s in particular. Almost every significant work of the master’s heritage has been the pride and possession of various state or private collections, and rarely changes hands. When any of the objects emerge at auction, it is always exiting for art collectors, antiquarians and all those who value the art of jewelry. In November 1991, Sotheby’s auction in Geneva was the scene of such excitement; the auction’s experts seemed to add to this frenzy by ignoring the real value of the piece and mystifying both the spectators and the purchasers. This relates, first of all, to one of the finest lots – a timepiece very close in design and size to the famous Imperial Egg of white nephrite by Mikhail Perkhin, called the ‘Madonna Lily Egg’ (1889, the Armory of the Kremlin in Moscow). In the catalogue, lot 394 is marked in bold print: “A timepiece retailed by Fabergé, unmarked, probably St. Petersburg, the movement signed: ‘ Hy, Moser & Co., St. Petersburg, the late 19th century”. The estimation was quite unbelievable: 25,000 – 35,000 SF, the sum usually given for carved stone animal figurines or wooden picture frames, mass produced in Brighton Beach, New York, or the Okhta region of St. Petersburg. The hammer price of the timepiece was four times higher, 148,000 SF.
The timepiece could well make an illustration for a statement often found in publications on Fabergé’s work, namely, that the great master’s pieces need no mark on them. They always exclaim: “I’m a Fabergé!” Aside from that clear announcement made by the appearance of the object, the catalogue gave the timepiece a detailed commentary on its provenance. It stated that the Empress Maria Fyodorovna gave the clock to Dr. Johann George Metzger, a Dutch doctor who had been summoned to St. Petersburg to treat the members of the royal family after the railway disaster of 1888. Among many interesting and essential details, the commentary also contained the extract date on which the gift was the given by the Empress to her healer. It is the year of 1892, the time of Dr. Metzger’s second visit to the Russian capital. For those who are further interested in the doctor’s association with the Russian court a reference is given to a list of publications including Grote Winkler Prins Encyclopedie, Amsterdam, 1971. Nevertheless, the clock’s value is best shown by its conception and its meticulous execution. The gift to Dr. Metzger was not just a valuable object purchased for the royal presentation. The jeweler who took the order made every effort to convey the meaning of the art of healing: he chose the image of a clock as a symbol of fleeting life. The timepiece is urn-shaped and entwined with a snake to symbolize medicine in a delicate and expressive manner. The head of the snake (a symbol of Eternity, Wisdom or Knowledge in many mythologies of the world) pointed to the hours and minutes on the dial-band. The urn-shaped body, a symbol of the Vessel of Life, burgeoning with a festive spray of golden flower shoots, was exquisitely crafted. It is worth mentioning that the symbolic message of the urn, traced back to ancient Greek states and Roman Empire, is very close in its conception to the Orthodox and pre-Christian tradition of worshipping the egg as a source of life. It is no mere chance that on Easter day, the day of Our Savior’s Resurrection, eggs were exchanged to celebrate the victory of Life over Death and to wish each other health and happiness. To every Easter gift belonging to the Russian Royal family was given this symbolic implication. Dr. Metzger’s clock, as well as the first Easter egg containing a “surprise” of a golden hen, was the basis for the further development of the theme of well wishing and was late interpreted by each master craftsman individually. Thus, the Easter egg of 1899, a clock by M. Perkhin, is decorated with a bow and Cupid’s golden arrow to replace the exquisitely ornamented snake pointing to hours and minutes. Their decorative effects varied; the first gift was a plastic representation of the deepest gratitude for easing the sufferings of dear ones after the accident, the other embodied the theme of the husband’s eternal love and tenderness to his wedded wife.
There is no need to analyze the extraordinary skill involved in the nephrite carving or silver-gift casting and engraving in order to come to the conclusion that the item is an outstanding piece of art produced by Fabergé’s firm. If, on the other hand, one takes into consideration the experts’ doubts at Sotheby’s about Fabergé’s authorship and the place of the object’s manufacture, St. Petersburg, (there seems to be no uncertainty about the date: late 19th century, according to the data given, or circa 1892, in the description of the item) then one should be prepared to accept the fact that leading master craftsman of the firm, Mikhail Perkhin, was a plagiarist, and Fabergé’s shops, which for many years had been making Easter gifts, stole ideas and developed other artists’ technological novelties.
Dr. Metzger’s clock had been closely guarded by his heirs’ for too long; it was never featured in an exhibition, auction, or included in a museum collection where Fabergé’s works were paraded; never was its photograph displayed in an album or study by modern experts in gold creations of the late 19th _ early 20th century. This made the clock seemed like Cinderella at a royal party. Its appearance didn’t conform to the established etiquette, or, to be exact, to any formula or scheme invented by art critics who tried to categorize creative pieces into some framework of their own. The verdict on the clock was : “Fabergé never made for his royal clientele a pair of eggs with the slightest likeness to one another. When, on the contrary, he worked for other customers, he had to repeat his own patterns. Even his magnificent imagination had its limits”₈.
Fabergé’s numerous jewelers and stone-carvers were, above all, outstanding artists for whom any repetition of an item was always dull work. This can also refer to great extent to some simple objects, as the firm manufactured no mass production in the modern meaning of the term. To state the opposite does not mean to tell the truth but it provides Fabergé’s imitators with a loop-hole and opens the way for them.
Dr. Metzger’s clock had another ‘non-standard characteristic worth mentioning. Unlike other valuable gifts produced at Fabergé’s firm for the Imperial family, this one had a clear history. It was brought to the West by a talented man who well deserved the hearty gratitude of the donor. Yet most of the Easter presents, those majestic symbols of filial or matrimonial love, found their way to the show-cases of glorious collections through wholesale purchases, often practically for nothing, from murderers, robbers and their associates. Those who carried out the savage massacre of citizen Romanov, his wife and children, as well as reprisals against the Russian Church and the country, hastened to pay back the financing they received for launching the October uprising.
While the ‘champions for the bright future of Russia and all the mankind’ were conducting their onslaught, Fabergé was in Petrograd. Newspapers carried daily accounts of robberies from the Winter Palace Cathedral, churches, Gatchina Palace, and the Alexander Nevsky Monastery. This wave of burglary and vandalism, carried under the popular slogan ‘Peace to huts, war to Palaces’, included the houses of well-to-do people. The new customers of the jewelers’ shops differed greatly from those who visited them before the revolution, and it was very common for this clientele to offer items to sell to jeweler rather than to buy something. Some shop owners, who felt the wave of the mob’s ‘righteous rage’ coming closer, were ready to emigrate. Before they left the country, they stocked their show cases with the most valuable items. Now and then a nouveau-riche millionaire visited a jeweler’s shop. A witness describes an episode that took place at Fabergé’s retail shop in Bolshaya Morskaya Street during the first months of the revolution. A picturesque couple, a jaunty sailor and a foppish factory girl, having handled the ornaments for a long time, selected one of the most expensive sets of jewelry. The assistant’s remark, “You must have some very important event coming up, haven’t you?” was answered with the girl’s “Yes, we are going to a dance at the Winter Palace tonight”₉.
Fabergé refused to consider the possibility of getting safe conduct for his firm, and soon, taking nothing with him, he left Petrograd, and Russia forever. Art and good business practices cannot survive or flourish where robbery and deceit reign.
¹ Birbaum, F. P. Stone-carving, jewelry and gold and silverwork in Fabergé’s house (in Russian). The manuscript is in the archives of the USSR Academy of Science, Fersman Fund, s. 544, inv.7, file 54. In a publication of H. Bainbridge’s (,) he offers a varied version of the episode, with a Grand Duchess for main character.
² Nadelhoffer, Hans. Cartier. Edition du Regard, Holland, 1984, p. 92-93.
³ Ibid, p. 115.
⁴ Bainbridge, Henri. Fabergé Figurines in Russian Colored Stones. Connoisseur, London, 1937, p. 200.
⁵ Snowman, Kenneth. Carl Fabergé: Goldsmith to the Imperial Court of Russia. London, 1979.
⁶ Géza von Habsburg and Alexander von Solodkoff. Fabergé: Court Jeweler to the Tsars. Lothringen, London, 1979.
⁷ Fabergé (compiled by Géza von Habsburg), Munich, 1986.
⁸ Habsburg /Lorraine, A. Solodkoff, Fabergé : Joailler a la cour de Russie. Office de Livre, 1979, Friburg (Suisse).
⁹ Baron N. Vrangel. Reminiscences (From Serfdom to the Bolshevic), Berlin, 1924, p. 240.