Sunday, October 19, 2008

Oval Objects of Desire

Lovely new book about the Faberge eggs. I have a modest collection of eggs; my most expensive was a "splurge" purchase made in Las Vegas in 1999 (while I was there for the FIDE World Chess Championship) of a Waterford crystal egg from a display I passed in the connecting hallway between Harrah's and the hotel/casino complext next store. It cost $100. The rest of my eggs have ranged in prize from a few dollars to about $20. I also collect pink elephants - but that's another story. OCTOBER 6, 2008 Bookshelf Oval Objects of Desire By JOSEPH TARTAKOVSKY In 1885, Czar Alexander III gave the czarina an Easter present that astonished her. When your wife lives in a palace with 900 rooms, delighting her with a gift is no easy task. And at first, Czarina Marie Fedorovna could have been excused for being underwhelmed by Alexander's offering: It was a plain enameled egg -- the traditional Russian Easter gift -- 2½ inches high. Inside the egg, though, she found a yolk made of gold; inside that, an exquisite golden hen on a bed of golden straw; inside that, a miniature diamond crown; and inside that, a tiny ruby pendant. She'd never seen anything like it. No one had. It so captivated the family that its maker, Carl Gustavovich Fabergé, earned the right to display the royal seal. Nearly every Easter thereafter, Alexander III gave a new Fabergé creation to Marie; when he died, his son Czar Nicholas II continued each spring to present an egg, one to his wife, Alexandra, and one to his mother. Between 1885 and 1916, 50 "imperial eggs" were made for the czars. Then the tradition ended: In 1917, eggs were the last thing on the mind of a czar worried about his very survival. Over the years the Fabergé eggs had grown more elaborate, each with a theme calculated to charm its recipient. When Marie's sons went to sea in 1890 on a Russian cruiser, the egg the following spring contained a gold and platinum replica of the ship floating on aquamarine, with diamonds for portholes. The Danish Palaces Egg from that period was so complex -- featuring watercolor miniatures of palaces from the czarina's youth in Denmark -- that it took a year to make. The 1913 Winter Egg, made of rock crystal and designed to imitate ice, was so perfectly etched and polished that it seemed freezing to the touch. Marie called Fabergé the "greatest genius of our time." (What did Tolstoy ever do for her?) Luscious though Fabergé eggs might be, Toby Faber has not written a book just about glittering baubles. The former managing director of the British publishing house Faber & Faber and the author of "Stradivari's Genius" (2005) argues that these objects have something to teach us about history. Noting, for instance, that Carl Fabergé borrowed designs from the court jewelers of Louis XV and XVI, Mr. Faber observes that the French and Russian dynasties, both coming to gory ends, had both also debauched themselves in riches. While the Romanovs were ogling the latest gem-encrusted Fabergé fantasy, their subjects were farming with medieval tools. But Mr. Faber wisely doesn't turn his story into a grim portrait of unfeeling excess. Instead, he tells a vivid, engrossing tale, describing, for instance, the rise and fall of Rasputin, the czarina's confidant, and giving a harrowing account of the final miserable months of Nicholas II and his family. We see them, prisoners in Siberia, hand-decorating Easter eggs that had been donated by sympathetic villagers, before being shot. The leading character of Mr. Faber's book is, of course, Carl Fabergé. How did he become the world's most famous jeweler, purveyor to half of Europe's nobility? He hailed from a French Huguenot family, Mr. Faber informs us, that had arrived in the Russian Empire by 1800; the surname was probably modified by an ancestor to emphasize Gallic roots at a time when Russian aristocrats spoke French. A brilliant designer and craftsman, Fabergé trained in St. Petersburg, Dresden and Frankfurt before taking over his father's St. Petersburg jewelry store in 1872. Fabergé was a brilliant businessman as well. His company eventually made necklaces, rings, clocks, fans, plates and hundreds of other items; by 1910, it employed more than 1,500 people and turned (in today's dollars) annual profits of $175 million. His detailed system of accounting ensured that he kept his labor costs just low enough so that they never threatened his profit margins. Not that he was a skinflint: Every morning at 10, Fabergé toured his workshop, occasionally taking up a nearly finished object, examining it coolly and then smashing it to pieces. "You can do better," he would tell a gaping craftsman. "Start again and do it right." In 1918, a year after the Russian Revolution, Lenin's commissars seized Fabergé's company and looted dozens of imperial eggs from the deposed czar's possessions. The communists sold the eggs abroad during the 1920s to raise desperately needed hard currency. Other eggs had been smuggled out of the country long before. Mr. Faber tracks these masterpieces as they turn up around the world, from Shanghai flea markets to the private collections of heiresses. It was investor-aficionado Malcolm Forbes who, in modern times, "almost single-handedly" made the eggs into some of the world's most precious objects, Mr. Faber says. Between 1965 and 1985, bidding at auctions and striking private deals, Forbes purchased nine imperial eggs for ever-increasing sums. Mr. Faber wonders whether Fabergé's prestige today is in part the effect, not the cause, of the price that Mr. Forbes was willing to pay. Many people predicted that after Malcolm Forbes's death (in 1990) prices would collapse. They didn't. In 1994 the Winter Egg sold for $5.6 million; eight years later the emir of Qatar bought it for $9.6 million. Then, in 2004, the Forbes family engaged Sotheby's to put its Fabergé hoard -- all nine eggs -- up for sale. A Russian oil magnate named Viktor Vekselberg swooped in before the auction could even take place and bought the lot for $90 million. "There's a satisfying symmetry," Mr. Faber writes, "inherent in the idea of eggs that were once ordered by the czar, the individual at the apex of an aristocratic society, being brought back to Russia by his modern-day successors, the oligarchs who now bestride the Russian economy." Maybe Mr. Vekselberg will someday give his collection to a Russian museum -- say, the famous one in St. Petersburg that was once an imperial palace -- and the circle will be complete. Mr. Tartakovsky is an associate editor of the Claremont Review of Books. Fabergé's Eggs By Toby Faber (Random House, 302 pages, $30)

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