Focus on Fabergé

Fabergé Eggs: A Retrospective Encyclopedia (Scarecrow Press, 2001) is the culmination of several years of work by Christel McCanless, a library consultant and independent researcher from Huntsville, Ala., and Will Lowes, a 30-year veteran TV and radio journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.

Their encyclopedia is an astounding piece of work. The introduction states it is “an attempt to collect all known, accurate information on the Tsar Imperial, Imperial, Kelch, and certain other major eggs made by the House of Fabergé.” The bulk of the text consists of exhaustive documentation on the eggs, but there are also two valuable essays written by Lowes incorporating new Fabergé research. The first looks into the relationships of the Russian Imperial family—with each other and with Fabergé himself—while the second offers details on the possible movements of the eggs after the fall of the Romanovs and World War I.

A later section, the “Encyclopedia of Who’s Who in the House of Fabergé,” alphabetically provides information on workmasters, marks, and many individuals and organizations involved with the House of Fabergé.

McCanless had published an earlier book on Fabergé (Fabergé and His Works: An Annotated Bibliography of the First Century of His Art; Scarecrow Press, 1994), and it was this book that brought the two scholars together. Impressed by the book’s attention to detail, “I sent an enthusiastic letter of congratulation to Huntsville, Alabama,” writes Lowes in the preface to the encyclopedia. “A fast friendship soon formed, and this encyclopedia is the end result of that friendship and collaboration.”

Lowes “is the information interpreter and organizer, while I search in libraries and make contacts,” says McCanless. “We complement each other nicely, and that way we cover the geographical distance between Australia and the southern part of the United States.”

Five dozen-plus. Between 1885 and 1916, the House of Fabergé created 50 Easter eggs for Tsars Alexander III and Nicholas II. In a lovely tradition, the two Tsars presented the eggs to their wives, the Tsarinas Marie (later the Dowager Empress) and Alexandra Fedorovna, as yearly Easter gifts.

Fabergé also created fantastic egg designs for others. Alexander Ferdinandovich Kelch, a wealthy industrialist, commissioned yearly Easter egg gifts for his wife—resulting in seven exceptional Fabergé Kelch eggs dating from 1898 to 1904. Other wealthy and influential Easter egg clients included the Duchess of Marlborough (formerly Consuelo Vanderbilt) and Dr. Emanuel Nobel.

A total of 66 eggs are featured in the encyclopedia. Following the introductory essays, the eggs are taken in turn and listed by date of creation, beginning with the First Hen Egg—the first Tsar Imperial egg ever made. Each entry lists workmaster, marks, materials used, and dimensions, as well as a detailed description and “background notes” that provide details particular to the egg. For instance, in the notes on the Lilies of the Valley Egg, the reader learns that Alexandra “regularly had trainloads of blooms brought to St. Petersburg from the Crimea to adorn the Alexander Palace,” while the notes for the Tsarevich Egg describe her relationship with Grigorii Rasputin.

Following the background notes, a detailed listing of the egg’s provenance is given, as well as a listing of any exhibitions in which the egg appeared. Completing the entry are reference sources encompassing books, journals, newspapers, and anything else—even calendars and postcards—in which the egg was featured.

The information contained in the background notes will fascinate both academics and amateur egg enthusiasts. Fabergé pieces seem to captivate all who view them, yet there were—and are—other venerable houses that produced items of equal quality and beauty. What is it about Fabergé that inspires such fervent, particular devotion?

“I think the attraction of Fabergé has changed over time,” says Lowes. “I think it represents loss, a series of lasts, and a yearning for beauty and quality impossible to find today. He was the last of the master craftsmen to make individual pieces of outstanding quality who nevertheless broke new ground—always restless to find a new technique … or looking to invent a new color for his enamel palette.

“Fabergé’s world also represents a loss of innocence—World War I saw to that—and it represents a loss of Imperial power in Russia. This was also the last time a sovereign/monarch stood as patron for an artist/craftsman,” Lowes notes. “With World War I came mechanization and mass production, and it is no surprise really that the Paris studio of Fabergé’s sons withered and eventually died. As well, Fabergé’s story is a potent mix of the pinnacle of the decorative arts and spectacular success destroyed by radical politics, the murder of a monarch and his family, and a swift and terrible fall from favor. Hollywood scriptwriters could do no better!”

Going once, going twice … While Lowes was introduced to Fabergé via an exhibition catalogue from 1977, Christel McCanless’s interest was piqued, she says, by “reading two books that a friend loaned me while I was home with the flu—they were the ever-popular Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert Massie … and Anyone Can Make a Million… by Robert Shulman. As a librarian and independent researcher I never made a million, but in the research process have collected a million pieces of paper! End result: my first publication, an annotated bibliography which is still the only one in the field.”

The two authors also have collaborated on another project, The Lowes and McCanless Index to Fabergé at Auction, 1934-Present. “It is an accumulation of close to 19,000 Fabergé objects which have been under the hammer over the years,” says McCanless. “It can be accessed via my Web page [fly.hiwaay.net/~christel/index.html]. We intend to publish it. It, too, is one-of-a kind in this field of research, as are the other two publications.”

“At the time, Fabergé stood at the top of the decorative-arts tree,” says Lowes, noting that Fabergé pieces were renowned for their technical quality, beauty, charm, and practicality. “If one smoked, one needed a cigarette case—so why not have the best and most beautiful: Fabergé?

“There is a story—perhaps apocryphal—about how to tell a genuine Fabergé cigarette [case] from a fake,” he says. “Simply close it. If the case closes with an audible pfffft—you have the real thing. The cases were so perfectly made that air had trouble escaping as the two halves closed. This is the intangible aura of Fabergé that his wealthy clients loved, and which still enchants us today. There are some things wars and politics cannot change.”