Faberge: Easter's Most Exquisite Eggs

Jennifer Vernon
for National Geographic News
April 8, 2004
Fabergé Easter eggs have been prized possessions of the wealthy for
over a century.

Crafted in the shops of Peter Carl Fabergé from 1885 to 1917, the eggs were designed primarily at the behest of Russian Tsars Alexander III and Nicholas II as annual Easter gifts for Tsarinas Maria and Alexandra.

One of the most glittering examples is the Winter Egg, presented to Maria by her son Nicholas II on Easter 1913. Studded with 3,000 diamonds, the egg sold at a 1994 auction for U.S. $5.6 million and was resold eight years later for $9.6 million.

Not all of the eggs were made for the Russian imperial family. Alexander Kelch, a Russian gold magnate and industrialist, gave his wife Barbara seven eggs between 1898 and 1904. The Duchess of Marlborough, formerly Consuelo Vanderbilt and the wealthiest young woman at the turn of the 20th century, also commissioned an egg of her own.

Unparalleled Craftsmanship

According to Christel McCanless—co-author with Will Lowes of the 2001 work Fabergé Eggs: A Retrospective Encyclopedia (Scarecrow Press)—the workmanship embodied in each egg has no modern equivalent.

The Coronation Egg, for example, contains an exact replica of the tsar's coronation coach, complete with wheels that turn. This piece alone took 15 months to craft.

It is not just the artistic labor involved in the production of each egg or even the eggs' diminutive scale that makes them so intriguing. "Many of these eggs have wonderful historical associations," McCanless said.

A case in point is the Trans-Siberian Railway Egg, produced in 1900 to commemorate the completion of its construction. Inside, the egg contains a miniature model of the railway.

This intricate craftsmanship and attention to detail is a reflection of Fabergé's artistic vision and ingenuity. However, Fabergé himself was not responsible for making any of the art objects, "which comes as a shock," McCanless remarked. Instead, "he was the entrepreneurial spirit behind [them]."

In fact, Fabergé managed some 500 employees and employed apprentices, starting at the age of 12, to learn the craft. "If they were good," McCanless said, "they stayed there a lifetime and eventually became work masters and were able to put their marks on pieces."

It is believed that a total of 66 eggs were produced by Fabergé's craftsmen between 1885 and 1917. Each one was unique, with some opening to reveal marvelous miniatures and others functioning as clocks.

The last two eggs attributed to Fabergé, the Karelian Birch Egg and the Blue Constellation Egg, were in production in 1917. The whereabouts of these eggs, and whether or not they even were finished, were unknown until recently.

That year, 1917, saw the October Revolution and the installment of a new regime in Russia. Fabergé and his shop were casualties of the ensuing political upheaval. "The story goes [the Bolsheviks] gave Fabergé ten minutes to take his hat and leave," McCanless said.

Fabergé fled to Switzerland, where he died in 1920. Several sons tried to keep the tradition alive, but without employees or resources, their efforts failed. The closing of the St. Petersburg shop and its branches marked the end of authentic Fabergé objects, McCanless said. "Fabergé, as such, died in 1918 when the shop was closed."

The Ultimate Collectible

The modern market for authentic Fabergé items is a bustling one. McCanless and co-author Lowes maintain a database that tracks 20,000 items that have appeared at auction to date since the first sale in London in 1934.

While eggs and other Fabergé items have been willed to museums, such as the Virginia Museum of the Arts in Richmond, others have been purchased anonymously by private collectors and often disappear from public view.

After taking into account concerns such as security and insurance, it is unlikely that real Fabergé eggs are sitting on anyone's mantel. "They're probably in bank vaults somewhere," McCanless said.

A notable exception among private collectors is the late publishing tycoon Malcolm Forbes, who made the Forbes family's large collection of Fabergé items available for public viewing.

"That was one of the wonderful things that the Forbes family did," McCanless said. "They allowed these things to travel all over the world."

The purchase earlier this year of the Forbes Fabergé eggs by Russian businessman Viktor Vekselberg has them on the move once more—this time, back to the land of their birth.

The eggs will be on display at the Kremlin, courtesy of Vekselberg, starting May 18, McCanless said. Russian museums are bidding to receive the eggs on permanent loan after the Kremlin exhibit closes. However, no final decision has been announced as to where their new long-term home will be.

The auction firm Sotheby's held a brief public showing of the former Forbes eggs in New York before their return to Russia. The large-format photography at the exhibition, McCanless said, allowed close-up views of the eggs ordinarily not accessible to most people.

The 1885 Hen Egg display made a particular impression on McCanless. The first egg commissioned by Alexander III for his wife, Maria, stands a mere two and a half inches (seven centimeters) high and opens to reveal a tiny hen.

The photographs on the accompanying panels revealed even the minutest details. "You could see the many colors of gold that the little hen was made out of—yellow gold and red gold and green gold—to show the texture of the feathers," McCanless recalled.

To say goodbye to objects of such exquisite beauty will be difficult, as evidenced by the massive crowds that attended the Sotheby's showing.

Despite their departure from U.S. soil, McCanless sees the purchase as exciting for the Russian people. "The national treasures are going home, and I think that's wonderful," McCanless said.

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