Monday, April 13, 2009
Beautiful Objects of a Doomed Empire: The Story of Faberge's Eggs
The San Francisco exhibit called "Artistic Luxury," at the Palace of the Legion of Honor (done in conjunction with the Cleveland Museum of Art), included objets d'art from Fabergé, Tiffany and Lalique, and raised a number of questions in my mind about Fabergé's eggs. There were just two or three Fabergé eggs in the exhibit and I remembered that Malcolm Forbes had collected them. The eggs were nearly all created for the Romanovs, the last of the Tsars. What else made them so special? How many eggs were there? What happened to them during and after the Russian revelolution? Where is each one of them today?
I found the answers to those questions in a wonderful book by Tony Faber called Fabergé's Eggs; The Extraordinary Story of the Masterpieces That Outlived an Empire. If tales of international mystery, murder, revolution, and gorgeous jewels interest you, you'll very much enjoy this book.
The "Rose Trellis Egg," from 1907, contained a "surprise" inside of a diamond chain and a miniature of the Tsar's son Alexis. The "surprise" is missing from the egg and its whereabouts are not known.
The decorated Easter eggs we exchange each spring have their origins in early Christian tradition. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, which split from the Roman Catholic Church some time after the fall of Rome, Easter gradually became a more important holiday than Christmas. And by the time of the Romanov tsars, Easter greetings were exhanged among Christians as part of the tradition. "Christ is risen," said the first person to a loved one, and the answer came back: "He is risen indeed." In Russia people exchanged these greetings all day Easter Sunday and often all during the following week.
Russians had been exchanging eggs at Easter for centuries: the egg was a pagan symbol of spring and was transformed into a Christian symbol of renewal and the Resurrection. The Russian Tsars and the Russian upper classes gave jeweled eggs to one another--as pins, as charms for charm bracelets, watch fobs and as jeweled pieces for necklaces. But it wasn't until 1885, that Tsar Alexander III had jeweler Carl Fabergé design a large jeweled egg for his wife, Tsarina Marie Fedorovna. That gift began a tradition and spread the fame of Carl Fabergé throughout Europe. (Today, in fact, Buckingham Palace has one of the best collections of Fabergé jewels and objets in the world.) From 1885 until 1918, jeweler Fabergé created one jeweled royal egg each year. Each one was a gift from the Tsar to his wife and each one contained a "surprise" inside. The tradition ended only with the murders of Tsar Nicholas and his family.
Fabergé was considered an enemy of the people by the communists, presumably for producing objects of luxury while the Russian people starved, and he fled to Switzerland. Most of his famous treasures remained behind him in Russia. A few were smuggled out by members of the royal family and some were later sold in Paris. A few others remained behind in the Russian armory. Some disappeared forever.
Two Americans were instrumental in the preservation of many of the eggs. The first was Armand Hammer, of Occidental Petroleum. He spent a great deal of his time in Russia after the revolution, and his relationship with the Soviets remains murky to this day. Whatever the relationship, he was allowed to purchase some of the eggs and sell them in the United State. The second American is Malcolm Forbes. He turned the phrase "Capitalist Tool" from a curse into a popular slogan for his magazine. It was Forbes who personally ensured the eggs had a lasting place in history, by paying huge prices for them when they came up for auction, putting together the best collection of them since the time of the Romanovs.
The Tsars exchanged these treasures at a critical time in Russian history, ignoring the desperation of the people they ruled. It was this kind of arrogance that led directly to the revolution. Thus, the Romanovs paid a terrible price for their bad governance and extravagance. All the people of Russia paid a price as well, as citizens of the Soviet Union--as it became--were then forced to spend six decades living under the terror of the Soviet dictators. Luxuries like jeweled eggs had no place in that new order.
But it all adds to the tale. How jeweled Easter eggs were involved in a revolution. And how they traveled an amazing journey from the Tsars to the hands of collectors in the century that followed.
Fabergé's Eggs; The Extraordinary Story of the Masterpieces That Outlived an Empire
by Tony Faber
Random House, New York, NY