Carl Fabergé (1846–1920)
Fabergé firm, Mikhail Perkhin (workmaster)
Miniatures: Johannnes Zehngraf
Imperial Pelican Easter Egg
Gold, diamonds, enamel, pearls, ivory, watercolor, glass
Miniatures (left to right):
The Elisavetinskii Institute, St. Petersburg (1808)
Nikolaevskii Orphanage, St. Petersburg (1837)
Ekaterininski Institute, St. Petersburg (1798)
The Pavlovskii Institute, St. Petersburg (1853)
Smol’nyi Institute, St. Petersburg (1764)
The Patriotic Institute, St. Petersburg (1827)
Kseniinski Institute, St. Petersburg (1894)
Nikolaevskii Orphanage, Moscow (1837)
Egg: 10.1 x 5.3 cm
Stand: 6.3 x 6.6 cm
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Bequest of Lillian Thomas Pratt
Photo Katherine Wetzel © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts


Part II


Posted 18 August 2014

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Curatorial Director Fabergé Company, London Fabulous Fabergé, Jeweller to the Czars

Why does there continue to be such tremendous interest in collecting Fabergé?
One of the leading specialists on the Russian master, Géza von Habsburg, curatorial director of the Fabergé company in London and author of a number of books on him and his work, including the catalogue of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, explains the fascination and enthusiasm still surrounding Fabergé.

Why are people still so fascinated by Fabergé, even today? Is it due only to the aura around the famous Easter eggs?
The legendary Easter Eggs do indeed account for much of Fabergé’s fame. However, few people know about the more than 200,000 other objects created by the firm, many of them one of a kind. Fabergé was the leading jeweller in Russia in the early twentieth century, yet due to the fact that the Bolsheviks broke up all the jewellery they could lay hands on after 1917, virtually nothing has survived. The same applies to his silver: all the works of Fabergé’s era were melted down to make silver ingots or rubles. What have survived in fairly large numbers are generally objets d’art of less intrinsic value.
Géza von Habsburg Curatorial director Fabergé company in London Photo Travis Fullerton © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

What really distinguished Carl Fabergé from other jewellers of his time? Was it his intelligence, his business acumen, his immense creativity or the virtuosity of his craftsmen?
His works are totally original, one-of-a-kind, beautifully designed and of superlative craftsmanship. They were the best-suited creations for their era – instantly recognizable among cognoscenti, ideal gifts for all occasions and relatively inexpensive. Add to that the “ambassadorial” role of the imperial family, who spread the fame of Fabergé internationally; the exhibitions held abroad; the prizes won; the role of the Edwardian society in London, where Alexandra, the wife of King Edward VII was the sister of Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna and where Fabergé had a shop; the fact that he sent teams of salesmen throughout Europe, the Near and Far East. Fabergé even pioneered by sending his Russian clientele priced and illustrated pamphlets.

How would you characterize the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ collection, apart from being the most important in North America?
The collection was formed by Lillian Thomas Pratt, a woman of great taste and of very specific interests. Anything directly connected with the Russian imperial family fascinated her. Her five Imperial Easter eggs are among Fabergé’s choicest works of art of their kind. Hence also the unusually large number of frames with photographs of members of the imperial family. Her collection is also uniquely rich in parasol and cane handles, as well as miniature Easter eggs. After the loss of the Forbes Family Collection with its nine Imperial eggs and over 200 other treasures to a Russian oligarch in 2004, we in the United States are lucky to still have such a wealth of objects by the great Russian craftsman.

Most of the major twentieth-century Fabergé collectors were American. How do you explain their particular interest in Fabergé?
“Many”, but not “most”. England too had a number of lesser known important collectors. The Royal family continued to acquire Fabergé after his death in 1920. King Farouk of Egypt was also an addicted collector. However, America did indeed have a particular soft spot for Fabergé. The ladies avidly collecting in the 1930s and 1940s all felt in some way akin to the czar’s tragically murdered family, particularly to the poor haemophiliac cesarevich and his four beautiful sisters. The imagined lifestyle of the Russian court was imitated in America, reflected in splendid Louis XVI interiors. Collecting Fabergé became and still is an urge among High Society ladies. Just how popular Fabergé has remained in the USA was shown by my exhibition Faberge in America, which attracted 400,000 visitors to the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 1996 and over one million nationwide.

The keen interest for Fabergé’s works during the twentieth century resulted in a thriving market for « Fauxbergés » to use your expression. Is it possible today to easily distinguish such fakes from genuine pieces?
My denomination “Fauxberge” has indeed become “monnaie courante”. Many tens of thousands of forgeries circulate internationally. They are not easily discernible to the layman, although to the handful of specialists they are generally readily recognizable. In my case, over forty years of handling thousands of both genuine and forged articles have given me a kind of “sixth sense” or “gut feeling”. Photographs are usually sufficient for us to detect the more common fakes, they even visually impact one at a distance. However, even among experts, there can be differences of opinion. With prices rising into the tens of millions, forgers now can take all the time necessary to produce virtually perfect creations. Some of them have become really difficult to spot. Like every specialist, even I have to admit to having been fooled.

Do we have a general idea of the total number of objects produced by Fabergé?
Even if no object is known from the hands of Fabergé himself, he is said to have had over 500 highly selected craftsmen working for him in Saint Petersburg and Moscow. Almost every piece by Fabergé has a secret scratched inventory number. For her part, Fabergé’s great-great-grand daughter believes that the firm produced over 300,000 creations.

You are the best expert on Fabergé. Has what is known about him and his firm changed a great deal since you began your study of the field?
“One of”, rather than “the best”. The first books on Fabergé were written either by authors personally acquainted with the Russian Master, or with one of his sons. Many facts published then have withstood the test of time, but the opening of the Russian archives due to Perestroika has produced a wealth of new material. Major unknown works of art by Fabergé surface regularly. One of the missing eight Imperial eggs was recently found in a yard sale, acquired for under $10,000 and now valued at $20 million.
Comments compiled by Jeanne Faton Excerpt from Fabulous Fabergé, Jeweller to the Czars, L’Objet d’Art Special Issue, 2014 Published under the Direction of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

To learn more:
Fabergé Revealed at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
Edited by Dr. Géza von Habsburg, this publication takes a detailed look at the VMFA’s very exhaustive collection. In addition to entries on Fabergé’s works, “Fauxbergés” and other contemporary Russian decorative art objects, it contains essays by experts that provide new information on the jeweller, his techniques and his creations. Co-published by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and Skira Rizzoli Publications, New York, in English. 422 pages. Some 600 photographs.

Carl Fabergé (1846–1920)
Fabergé firm, Moscow
Tsesarevich Ivan and Princess Elena Box
Silver gilt, enamel
2.2 x 5.4 cm
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Jerome and Rita Gans Collection of Russian Enamel
Photo Katherine Wetzel © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Fabulous Fabergé, Jeweller to the Czars

Internationally acclaimed French designer and sculptor Hubert Le Gall focuses his dreamlike and impish way of seeing on the creations of Fabergé. Here he outlines his exhibition plan that is tinged with poetry and humor.
We are familiar with the vocabulary that is at once creative, delicate and playful in your work. How did you react to Nathalie Bondil’s proposal to showcase the world of Carl Fabergé?

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts has invited me to design exhibitions before, shows like Édouard Vuillard in 2003, or Tiffany in 2008. On top of that, Nathalie Bondil, the museum’s director, is aware of the close relationship that my creations have with nature, flowers, and small animals. For this exhibition my task has been to deliver a modern way of seeing these objects, which, though quite small, in no way diminishes their preciousness and technical virtuosity. While some of them cannot be thought of as works of art in the fullest sense, others, like the Imperial eggs, are downright fascinating.

How exactly do you view this output and what has commonly been called the “Fabergé style”?
There can be no disputing the fact that “Fabergé style” is inspired by the past and essentially by Russian tradition. For instance, this ingenious goldsmith was wonderfully clever in the way he absorbed the codes and yet did not transform them. In a word, Fabergé did not set out in search of modernity. It was hardly by accident then that the firm disappeared with the Revolution. To avoid monotony a way had to be found to circumvent this fact, to toy with objects, materials and shapes to arouse public attention, to tell a tale.

What are the guiding principles behind your layout?
With the Museum team, we decided to work on the symbolism and origin of the objects, to go back to the sources of inspiration prevalent at the time they were made, and then to reflect upon the aspirations of the men and women who prized this “Fabergé style.” It was tempting to recall the archetype itself of an aristocratic society enamored of refinement, yet unaware that its world was vanishing. The exhibition is thus about this impending fall, about this breach, about a new world in the making. The other more pedagogical angle to my work was to let these objects speak for themselves. Their technical brilliance lies at the root of their success.

What constraints did you come up against?
The main difficulty lay in the scale of the objects. Some are tiny, no more than 2.5 centimeters long! So we had to avoid having them literally lost in vast galleries, and we had to show them at optimum height, that is 1.3 metres from the floor, while keeping their supports lightweight. In essence what we had to do was make these small objects into something big, to make them talk to one another.

In broad outline how is the exhibition laid out?
Each of the four sections of the exhibition opens with an imperial egg, astounding in terms of its technical quality, preciousness of materials, and historical context. So the tour begins with an evocation of the Orthodox religion and of Holy Russia. Welcomed by a sumptuous Easter egg in red gold with the figure of a pelican (personal emblem of the dowager empress and symbol of motherly self-sacrifice) perched on top, the visitor wanders around a whole gathering of small eggs dangling in the air like butterflies on the wing. At the far end of this first room gleams a gilded iconostasis in which the icons are presented.
The second room recounts the thousand-year history of Russia through its political protagonists: Ivan the Terrible; Peter the Great; Catherine II and the Imperial eagle. The starting point in this section is none other than the magnificent Imperial Peter the Great Egg that Czar Nicholas II presented to his consort Alexandra Feodorovna in 1903, the bicentenary year of the founding of Saint Petersburg. Inside this exceptional piece there is a miniature replica of Falconet’s famous equestrian statute of Peter the Great! Each of the eggs presented in this section evokes the reign of a monarch, tells a story. So I designed four tables which cast onto the walls deep shadows ending in portrait profiles like spectres from the history of Russia. What’s more, the geometric shapes of these supports imitate great crystals or ice-floes on the freezing waters of the Neva. In contrast, the splendor of these small objects of exquisite refinement shines forth.
The third section of the exhibition leads the visitor into the ambience of the workshops and the shop at the House of Fabergé. So we had to make it enticing, evoking the place of creation, and the interplay of material and form. Mirroring the lifestyle of the period, snuffboxes and cane handles are delicately laid on display stands. Spread on the floor, a large carpet bearing the Cyrillic inscription “C. Fabergé” recaptures the luxurious atmosphere of the shop. The workbenches, arranged like a webbed foot or indented leaf, call to mind the close bond between the craftsmen and their work. This section is without doubt the most light-hearted, the most playful. There is a game of hide-and-seek going on between the fictitious client and the objects. If I don’t succeed in bringing a smile to the lips of the visitor, then I’ll have lost my bet!
Opening with the Imperial Red Cross Egg with Imperial Portraits, the fourth part of the exhibition is much more sombre-looking because it simultaneously tells the story of the fall of the Empire and of the House of Fabergé. What we hoped to do here was show the coexistence of two conflicting worlds. On the one hand, there’s the palace with the Imperial family immured in its glorification (here portraits and objects commemorating official anniversaries and marriages). On the other, there’s the people’s world and street-life (through two palace windows we can watch footage of the Russian front during World War I and the rumblings of the Revolution). The frames holding photos of the czar and his family, fetishistic objects that they are, teeter in a metaphor of a world that is falling apart.
Comments compiled by Bérénice Geoffroy-Schneiter Excerpt from Fabulous Fabergé, Jeweller to the Czars, L’Objet d’Art Special Issue, 2014
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