Fabergé: The Story Behind the World’s Most Famous Easter Eggs

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Fabergé: The Story Behind the World’s Most Famous Easter Eggs

In late May 1882, the All-Russia Industrial and Art Exhibition officially opened in Moscow. Over the course of 131 days, the exhibition would welcome over 1 million people, all looking to take in the sweeping array of goods on display in pavilions across the Khodynsky field, ...

March 30, 2024 - By TFL

Fabergé: The Story Behind the World’s Most Famous Easter Eggs

Image : iStock

Case Documentation

Fabergé: The Story Behind the World’s Most Famous Easter Eggs

In late May 1882, the All-Russia Industrial and Art Exhibition officially opened in Moscow. Over the course of 131 days, the exhibition would welcome over 1 million people, all looking to take in the sweeping array of goods on display in pavilions across the Khodynsky field, 30-hectare space in the north-west of Moscow – from decorative artworks to silverware and metal works. Among the many exhibitors that were present for the traveling, biannual event was Peter Carl Fabergé, the proprietor of the House of Fabergé, the jewelry and tableware company he had acquired from his father just 10 years prior. 

Mr. Fabergé would ultimately come to be known as “one of the greatest goldsmiths, jewelers, and designers in Western decorative arts” and the jeweler to the Russian imperial court. However, in 1882, he was merely a 36-year old at the helm of a family company in the business of making highly-crafted jewelry. It was precisely that jewelry – and in particular, Mr. Fabergé’s specialty in selecting and arranging precious and semiprecious materials, such as gold, silver, jade, and lapis lazuli, among others – that would attract the eye of an important new patron, who was present at the All-Russia Industrial and Art Exhibition that spring: Tsar Alexander III. 

Upon seeing Mr. Fabergé’s work at the Exhibition, the Tsar (“through the intermediary of his uncle, Grand Duke Vladimir,” per Fabergé) commissioned him and his St. Petersburg-based business to produce a custom creation. The 37-year old Emperor of Russia was not in the market for a piece of jewelry, for which the House of Fabergé was best known; he similarly was not interested in the tableware or handcrafted furniture that Mr. Fabergé was selling, either. Instead, he wanted Fabergé to create a jewel-encrusted egg that he could present to his wife, Danish princess-turned-Russian Empress Marie Fedorovna, as a surprise Easter gift. 

The Start of a Series

In placing such an order, the Tsar would be giving rise to what would become a more than 30-year-long pattern among Russian royals. It was also the first step in creating what would be “the last gasp of [Russian] imperial patronage colliding with craftsmanship,” Fabergé expert Kieran McCarthy would assert more than a century later. “The daily lives [of Russian royalty] were lived at such a height of luxury that you couldn’t really excite them with anything of intrinsic value. It was always about the craftsmanship.” This is what the eggs were about for them, according to McCarthy, “the craftsmanship and demonstration of skill,” and Mr. Fabergé was the one who would be responsible for that. 

The next Tsar, Nicholas II – who came into power when his father, Alexander III died of kidney disease (after surviving several assassination attempts) in the Livadia Palace in November 1894 – would go on to order two eggs each year from Fabergé, one for his mother Maria and one for his wife, Alexandra. Like clockwork, the order would be placed more than a year in advance, as according to the House of Fabergé, each egg – “an individual artistic tour de force” – took a year or longer to make and involved a team of highly skilled craftsmen, who worked in what has been described as “the greatest secrecy.”

In the beginning, Alexander III exerted specifications about what he wanted his eggs to look like and/or consist of; for example, the first egg in the series, dated 1885, was initially planned by Fabergé to contain a diamond ring, the company revealed over a century later, but “the actual finished version, following specific instructions of the Emperor, included a ruby pendant of great value.” But beginning in 1887, Mr. Fabergé and his artisans were given complete freedom in the design and execution of the eggs. The only iron-clad rule was this: There had to be surprise within each creation. 

“He was basically given carte blanche to use his creativity and the craftsmanship of his workshops to produce really the very best that could be imagined as an Easter present,” says Fabergé expert Dr. Géza von Habsburg. And “after becoming the official royal jeweler in 1885, [he] began making his eggs more extravagant,” the Wall Street Journal revealed. Dreaming up each complex concept, Mr. Fabergé often drew on family ties, events central to the Imperial Court, or the milestones and achievements of the Romanov dynasty. The Fifteenth Anniversary Egg of 1911, for instance, commemorated the fifteenth anniversary of Nicholas II’s accession to the throne, while the Romanov Tercentenary Egg of 1913 celebrated 300 years of the House of Romanov.

Although the theme of the coveted eggs – which ranged in height from three to five inches tall –  changed annually, the element of surprise remained a constant link between them. The surprises ranged from a perfect miniature replica of the Coronation carriage – which took 15 months of 16-hour-days to make; a purple and gold-encrusted “Swan” egg that opened to reveal a mechanically-operated swan inside; and the Gatchina Palace egg includes a miniature gold replica of the palace at Gatchina on the inside; and many eggs could be opened to find tiny, little portraits of the royal family members.

An Abrupt End

The decades-long pattern of the Russian royals looking to the House of Fabergé for annual Easter gifts – which resulted in ten eggs being produced from 1885 to 1893, during the reign of Emperor Alexander III and 40 more during the rule of his son, Nicholas II – came to an abrupt end in light of the second Russian revolution so much so that one egg, a blue crystal and rhinestone creation that Fabergé was working in 1917, was left unfinished. After abdicating the throne in 1917, Nicholas II, his wife, and their five children fled St. Petersburg, where they were lined up and killed by Bolshevik rebels in the summer of 1918. 

Meanwhile, in the midst of the war, Fabergé, the company, evolved, producing war supplies, closing its London branch, and converting into a joint stock company in 1916. At the same time, Fabergé, the family, was looking to flee, which is precisely what they did between 1918 and 1920. Peter Carl Fabergé successfully fled from St. Petersburg “on the last diplomatic train for Riga from where he fled to Germany” in 1918, and died two years later in Lausanne, Switzerland.

By 1924, two of Peter’s sons, Eugène and Alexander – the latter of whom had been captured and jailed when attempting to leave Russian but “had managed to escape from the USSR when a friend bribed guards,” according to Faberge – had settled in Paris, where launched Fabergé & Cie, “which traded in and re-stored objects made by the House of Fabergé, as well as general jewelry and objets d’art.” 

Things become complicated in 1937 when Sam Rubin, an American of Russian descent, started a perfume business, branded his perfumes Fabergé and formed Fabergé Inc., which prompted a legal battle between Rubin and the members of the Fabergé family. The fight would ultimately prove to be short-lived, though, as the “Fabergé family decided to settle out of court so as to avoid high legal fees,” with Rubin paying just $25,000 to use the name exclusively in connection with the sale of perfume.

As for the trademark and other associated intellectual property rights of the Fabergé family, they have since been sold several times;  in 1989, Unilever acquired Fabergé Inc. for $1.55 billion. All the while, several companies have brought egg-related merchandise to the market using the Fabergé name. The Victor Mayer jewelry company, for instance, produced limited edition heirloom quality Fabergé eggs authorized under Unilever’s license from 1998 to 2009, but did not find the level of fame or demand that existed a century prior. 

Now, the company is owned by Cayman Islands-based Fabergé Limited, which as of January 2007, owns the entire global portfolio of trademarks, licenses and associated rights relating to the Fabergé brand. The principal investor is Pallinghurst Resources LLP, an investment advisory firm based in London and chaired by Brian Gilbertson, the former CEO of mining company BHP-Billiton plc.

In September 2009, Fabergé Limited launched its first collection of exclusive jewelry, as well as its website. It maintains boutiques in Australia, Azerbaijian, Abu Dhabi, Canada, Czech Republic, Bahrain, and plans to open a Fabergé shop in London and a retail location is also being sought in New York.

Where Are They Today?

Of the Fabergé eggs created, the majority – 50 eggs – were made for Russian Tsars, and of the 57 eggs in existence today, the majority are owned by museums and other collections worldwide – from Moscow to Cleveland, with 10 in private collections. The largest collections are held by the Kremlin Armoury and the Faberge Museum in St. Petersburg, which house 10 each.

For example, the Hen Egg – the very first to ever be produced – is now part of the Vekselberg Collection (named for Russian oil and metal mogul Viktor Vekselberg, who purchased nine eggs from the Forbes family in 2004 for $90 million), and is housed in the 18-month-old Fabergé Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. Another private collector, a “Russian businessman with a passion for Tsarist treasures, Alexander Ivanov, said he was behind the $18.5 million purchase of a Faberge egg in London in 2007,” per Reuters.

Despite most of the eggs finding documented homes across the globe, not all of them have been located. In fact, as of 2013, eight eggs, including the Third Imperial Egg – the 1887-crafted egg, which consists of a solid 18K gold reeded case, diamond and sapphire clasps, three lion-paw legs, and a 14 carat gold and diamond and sapphire encrusted Vacheron Constantin Lady’s watch clock – were thought to be lost forever. (“Two others are thought to have survived, though their locations remain a mystery,” per CNN). That number changed in 2014. 

About a decade prior, an American scrap metal dealer was perusing a flea market in the Midwest. On the hunt for metals that he could melt down and sell, he came upon a gold egg and its intricately-designed stand. Upon opening the delicate, little egg, he found a gold clock with diamond-encrusted hands. Thinking he could make at least a few hundred dollars profit by melting down the egg and its stand, and selling it, the man, who has remained completely anonymous, purchased the item for nearly $14,000. 

Despite this rather large investment, he would swiftly learn from potential buyers that the gold was not worth a fraction of what he paid for it. Frustrated, he left the egg perched on his kitchen counter, thinking he had thrown away $14,000 on a bad investment. The all-but-abandoned egg was relegated to a spot in his kitchen for years until one evening in 2012, when he started to wonder. Curiously, he Googled the name on the back of the clock that was inside of the egg: “Vacheron Constantin.” What he would find was astonishing. 

After a bit of digging, he came upon a 2011 article from Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper about the Third Imperial Easter Egg, the gift that Tsar Alexander III presented to his wife, Maria Feodorovna, on Orthodox Easter in 1887. He “recognized his egg in the picture” almost immediately. It was then that he discovered that the little gold egg that had been sitting on the counter in his kitchen amongst drying-fruit and a pile of mail, was, in fact, not worth $14,000; it was worth millions. More exactly, the Third Imperial Easter Egg was estimated at the time to be worth tens of millions.

Shortly upon discovering what appeared to be the true nature of the egg, The man contacted Faberge expert Kieran McCarthy. “He was getting frantic. He couldn’t sleep; he couldn’t eat; he couldn’t think about anything else,” McCarthy revealed a few years later. Far removed from the worlds of art and antiques, he had no idea what the value of the golden trinket that had been sitting on his counter was. According to CNN, in order to formally verify the authenticity of the egg, the man flew to London to visit McCarthy,” who is the director at Wartski, the British family firm of antique dealers specializing in Russian works of art that counts the Queen and her son Charles, the Prince of Wales as patrons.

Hesitant to travel with the egg, the man – clad in “jeans, a plaid shirt and trainers” – arrived at Wartski’s outpost in London’s Mayfair area with photographs of the egg in tow. “He handed me a portfolio of photographs, and there was the egg, the Holy Grail of art and antiques,” McCarthy recalled. Not long thereafter, McCarthy hopped on a plane to the U.S., arriving at the man’s house, a “modest” home in a small town in the American Midwest, located “next to a highway and a Dunkin’ Donuts.” He found the egg sitting on the kitchen counter. It was real. 

The egg would stay in the still-unnamed man’s possession for little longer; shortly after discovering the multi-million dollar gem in his possession (one that would undoubtedly require security and an eye-poppingly expensive insurance policy should he decide to hold on to it), he parted ways with the egg, and it was sold off in an auction in a London that same year. Wartski acquired it on behalf of an unidentified collector, from an unidentified location, for a unidentified price. The secrecy that has long been attached to the quiet making and careful distribution of the eggs abounded. 

As for how one of the world’s most famous figurines ended up at a flea market in the broad of day in the middle of the U.S., McCarthy attributes that to the fact that few people actually know what to expect when it comes to these prized possessions. These are “very delicate and small objects. People never anticipate that Fabergé eggs can be that size,” he said. For the prices that the eggs have fetched at auction and the age-old myths that come with them, people “imagine them to be ‘the size of the Empire State Building, with diamonds the size of footballs,'” McCarthy says, half joking. 

Practically speaking, the Third Imperial Egg “was thought to have been lost after the Soviets listed it for sale in 1922 as part of a policy of turning ‘treasures into tractors,'” according to CNN, thereby, seeing the egg confiscated by the Moscow Kremlin Armoury during the revolution. Wartski notes that “the Provisional Russian government recorded the Egg among the confiscated Imperial treasures transferred from the Anichkov Palace to the Moscow Kremlin Armoury in September 1917.”

“Between February 17, 1922 and March 24, 1922 responsibility for the egg was transferred from the Kremlin Armoury to the special plenipotentiary of the Council of People’s Commissars, Ivan Gavrilovich Chinariov.” After that, the records of its whereabouts are hazy … until the 1960s, that is, when the egg resurfaced, albeit very briefly. In early July 2011, two Fabergé experts in the U.S., a couple named Anna and Vincent Palmade, discovered an image of an egg identical to the long-lost Third Imperial Egg. The image was in an old catalog for an auction held at Parke-Bernet (now Sotheby’s) in March 1964. The egg had somehow made its way to U.S. and had been sold at an auction in New York for a mere $2,450. 

As the Telegraph revealed later that summer, the “newly discovered image of the egg … prompted a frantic search by Sotheby’s to trace its whereabouts,” but the search came up short. The egg had, again, vanished into thin air. 

As for how, exactly, the golden egg went from its auction-owner to a flea market in the Midwest in the mid-2000s, no one has been able to discern that. What is known is that if the price that the anonymous buyer paid for the egg at auction in 2014 is close to what experts have predicted, a cool $33 million, that makes it the most expensive Fabergé Egg ever traded on the private market. And that the unnamed man’s discovery that day at a flea market smack-dab in the middle of the U.S., more than 5,500 miles from St. Petersburg and a hundred years after the fall of Imperial Russia, is undoubtedly “the find of the century.”

This article was originally published by TFL on April 16, 2018.

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