Faberge In America

Though pre-French Revolutionary jewelry inspired his art and the Russian Revolution destroyed much of his work, it is perhaps the American Revolution which figures most in the story of Peter Carl Faberge. For it was his American admirers who most assiduously glorified the surviving work of Faberge and pushed his already fabled oeuvre into the frenzied hands of collectors everywhere.

A new exhibit, “Faberge in America,” tells the Yanks’ story, while providing fascinating details about a wide variety of Faberge’s greatest works of art. The exhibit will make the rounds of U.S. museums during 1996-’97; it op-ened in February at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Yankee dollar: Peter Carl Faberge was already a wildly famous jeweler to the stars of his day – European royalty and the aristocracy – when newly wealthy Americans began to knock at his door around the turn of the twentieth century. Faberge’s famous eggs, given by Czar Nicholas II to his mother and wife each Easter, were legendary. His workshops, employing nearly 500 carefully chosen craftsmen, were busy creating the 150,000 other objects credited to him during his lifetime. (Though he brainstormed the ideas and directed the show, other jewelers completed his works of art. In fact, there isn’t one object in existence that he actually made!)

Julia Grant, the granddaughter of Ulysses S. Grant, was the first documented American Faberge groupie. She visited the Faberge shop in 1900, after having tea with Czar Nicholas II’s mother, the Empress Maria Feo-dorovna. The Empress had eggs and other Faberge objects sprinkled all over her palace apartments in St. Petersburg. (The royal Romanovs were such great fans that they kept a supply of Faberge objects on hand, just in case an unexpected visitor merited a gift!)

Grant, who was married to a Russian, dragged her fellow American traveler Henry C. Walters to the Faberge shops soon after. There the American collector fell in love at first sight. Walters bought several items, including some droll animals, on that trip – his first and only to Russia. Now housed in the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, they are on loan for the “Faberge in America” exhibit. (Later, Walters would purchase several Faberge eggs.)

Consuelo Vanderbilt, granddaughter of the great railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, was another early American Faberge fan. Like many young American heiresses of the time, she had been married against her will to a member of the failing British aristocracy, trading new money for an old and slightly tattered title. As the duchess of Marlborough, she traveled to Russia in 1902 and also made the required visit to Czar Nicholas’s mother. Like Grant, she then made a beeline to the Faberge shops and commissioned an exquisite Easter egg clock. Many years later, she auctioned the egg clock to help build a hospital in Paris, where it was purchased by Ganna Walska, the second wife of wealthy American Harold Fowler McCormick, chairman of the board of the International Harvester Company. Eventually, the Duchess of Marlborough Egg, as it came to be called, was acquired by Malcolm Forbes, American Faberge collector extraordinaire.

(The provenance of Faberge objects is almost as interesting as the objects themselves. Christopher Forbes, Malcolm’s son, tells the story of the Rosebud Egg, the first Easter egg given by Czar Nicholas II to Czarina Alexandra and the twelfth acquired by Forbes. One-time owner Henry Talbot de Vere Clinton threw it at his wife during a quarrel; slight damage to the top of the egg helped prove its authenticity.)

J.P. Morgan, Jr., son of the great financier, also collected Faberge. He purchased several objects when he visited Russia in 1905 to oversee a big loan to the Russian government. For his father, he bought a tiny sedan chair and another miniature chair. For his children, he bought a group of six snowflake brooches.

Ah, for the old Russia: The next great period of American Faberge collecting came soon after the Russian Revolution. Faberge had died in exile in Switzerland in 1920 and streams of Russian emigres were bringing his objects to America as portable wealth. At the same time, Armand Hammer, son of a Russian immigrant (who named his son for the arm and hammer symbol of the Socialist Labor Party), was making his fortune in the Russian-American import/export business. Hammer began collecting Russian objects in 1928 and soon fell for Faberge. Because of the Depression, however, he found it hard to sell the objects in America. He hit upon the idea of selling “Russian Imperial Treasures” through department stores around the country, spreading the Faberge word and selling Faberge items like hot cakes.

Matching Hammer’s love of things Faberge were Alexander and Ray Schaffer, who opened another gallery of Russian objects that would later become A La Vieille Russie in New York. Hammer’s and the Rays’ promotions led four American women to begin Faberge collections that would become famous. The collections of Matilda Geddings Gray, India Early Minshall, Lillian Thomas Pratt and Marjorie Merriweather Post form the core of the “Faberge in America” show.

A fondness and nostalgia for old Russia informed the American collecting that took place from the 1930s onwards. Americans have always been fascinated with stories of old royalty and its excesses (witness the current obsession with the Prince and Princess of Wales), perhaps because they have never had a royal family. The Romanov royal family, with its tragic end in a brutal assassination, was no exception. Because of his connections to the royals, as well as his link with limitless luxury, Faberge’s works came to symbolize the end of an era.

For a time, “to bring out the Faberge” was a common expression meaning the family was decking the table with the choicest finery, says Geza von Habsburg. A renowned authority on Faberge, Habsburg is guest curator of the “Faberge in America” exhibit and author of Faberge in America, the catalog that accompanies the exhibit (Thames and Hudson, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1996).

The Forbes 12: Of all the Americans who have collected Faberge, however, none could match the passion of Malcolm Forbes, whose collection of 12 Faberge Easter eggs represents a stash larger than the Kremlin’s! (Forbes couldn’t help bragging once that he also had more eggs than Queen Elizabeth II, who has a measly three.)

Forbes caught the Faberge bug after buying his wife a Faberge cigarette case in London. She loved it and the rest, as they say, is history. He ended up bidding $50,000 to win the Duchess of Marlborough Egg in 1965 and purchased many more Faberge objects throughout his lifetime.

Forbes appreciated the functionality of many Faberge pieces. His desk was almost cluttered with Faberge booty, such as two bowenite bell pushes with gemstone buttons that actually worked. “He never ceased to get a kick out of pushing the cabochon moonstone or garnet buttons…that summoned either secretaries or security to his office,” recalled Christopher Forbes. He also tossed paperclips and pens into the Faberge pieces on his desk. The family is perhaps lucky that Forbes didn’t talk with his hands, or one of the precious pieces might have landed on the floor during an emotional moment.

Dime a dozen: Though it may seem as though all the good Faberge items were scooped up long ago, Americans continue to collect the Russian master’s great works. Actress Joan Rivers is an avid collector, as is John Traina, an international consultant.

Still, Faberge can bomb, points out Geza von Habsburg. Fifty years after Armand Hammer made such a hit of Faberge objects by selling them through department stores, Neiman Marcus was unable to sell four items it featured in its catalog in 1985.

But von Habsburg gives American collectors a reason to dream with a final story. When he asked a young woman where she had obtained the exquisite miniature Faberge egg she was asking him to value, she replied, “I picked it up for a dime at a garage sale in D.C.”

Hope springs eternal.

SYMBOLS OF SPRING: EGGS, FLOWERS & ANIMALS

Peter Carl Faberge was an ardent creator of nature-inspired objects. His favorite motifs were flowers, animals and, of course, eggs. Geza von Habsburg, guest curator of the “Faberge in America” exhibit, has written many books on the art and social history surrounding Faberge. He gives several insights into why the great master chose these items.

  • The eggs: Orthodox Russians have taken the egg as their symbol of Easter for a thousand years, points out von Habsburg. Russians from the poorest to the wealthiest traditionally presented or exchanged eggs along with three Easter kisses and the statement “Christ is Risen…Yes, Christ is truly risen.” It’s no wonder that the Czars chose this motif when asking Faberge to create gifts for their loved ones. A famous letter from Empress Maria Feodorovna to her son, Czar Nicholas II, uses the words, “Christ has risen,” in thanking him for the Faberge egg he had sent her.

  • The flowers: Flowers were the second most popular Faberge motif. Faberge was inspired by the nature studies of 19th century China, Western Europe and Russia. Some of his flowers are Jap-anese in style, especially in their arrangement. Faberge went to almost any lengths to get a flower just right. He once designed a dandelion puff ball, to which his craftsmen affixed the fluff of a real dandelion.

  • The animals: Faberge collected Japanese netsuke animal carvings in ivory and wood and these inspired his animal figures. The jeweler made his animals from hardstone, mostly gleaned from Russian mines. Though a great many of these critters are now owned by Queen Elizabeth II (via her great grandmother, Queen Alexandra, who collected them into a “zoo”), a significant number are in America.

FABERGE IN AMERICA: THE SCHEDULE

The “Faberge in America” exhibit left the Metropolitan Museum of Art, its first venue, on April 28, 1996. Its remaining U.S. schedule:

  • Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, May 25-July 28, 1996.

  • Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Aug. 24-Nov. 3, 1996.

  • New Orleans Museum of Art, Dec. 7, 1996-Feb. 9, 1997.

  • Cleveland Museum of Art, March 12-May 11, 1997.

This early 20th century ostrich is accurately carved from striated agate, with gold, diamonds and quartzite. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond; bequest of Lillian Thomas Pratt.

WHERE’S THE JEWELRY?

Devotees of Faberge objects might well wonder what happened to the 150,000 pieces that Peter Carl Faberge produced in his lifetime. After all, Faberge was one of the most famous jewelers of his time, although he disdained the very large diamond-crusted jewelry made by his contemporaries Tiffany, Cartier and Boucheron. Yet, relatively few of his jewelry pieces survive.

Most jewelers probably know why. While the fine art objects he made had relatively low intrinsic value, the jewelry did contain larger amounts of gold, diamonds and precious stones. These were melted down and the stones salvaged after the Russian Revolution, with no regard for their provenance. C’est la guerre.