The exhibition Fabergé – Jeweller to the Imperial Court can be considered a sort of Encyclopedia of Forgeries. Its ‘Easter Eggs’ are modern fakes and its ‘Imperial Tiaras’ antiques of modest value, unscrupulously passed off as works by the famous master.
The public is less familiar with Fabergé jewellery than with Fabergé eggs. Fabergé jewellery consisted essentially of fairly simple, albeit elegant, low-cost items: brooches, cuff-links, pendants and, less frequently, bracelets and necklaces. Such pieces are often to be found in the catalogues of Sotheby’s and Christie’s Russian Sales. Fabergé also created more expensive jewellery but, as Marina Lopato noted, only a few such items have survived to this day, and most appear irretrievably lost (M. Lopato: The Jewellers of Old Petersburg – St Petersburg 2006, p. 166). The survivors include eight tiaras: six of them indisputably by Fabergé, two of them attributed to Fabergé. All eight left Russia prior to the Revolution – either as imperial gifts, or sold through Fabergé’s London branch – and are now in European aristocratic collections. There are no Fabergé tiaras in any Russian collection.
The Hermitage exhibition is not only a sensation when it comes to (fake) Fabergé Easter eggs: it also purports to harbour four previously unknown Fabergé imperial tiaras. This staggering achievement ought to have provoked hundreds of newspaper articles with headlines screaming Lost Romanov Treasures Back In the Winter Palace! But no. Nothing of the sort. Prior to my Open Letter, all professional publications seemed to be colluding in ignoring this momentous event. Another tiara or two, OK, come on… what’s the big deal! But I decided to take a closer look. Here’s what I found.
The Tiara owned by Empress Alexandra Feodorovna (Hermitage catalogue n° 3) turned out to be an anonymous 19th-century piece sold at Christie’s on 26 November 2014 for £74,500, complete with case by London jewellers S.J. Phillips.
Another Tiara owned by Alexandra Feodorovna (Hermitage catalogue n° 2) had passed through the hands of London antique jewellery dealer, ex-head of Christie’s London jewellery department Humphrey Butler. This, too, is the work of an anonymous 19th-century European jeweller priced at £50,000.
The diamond Tiara owned by [Dowager Empress] Maria Feodorovna (Hermitage catalogue n° 5) appeared at auction in Paris in 2011 (sold for €45,000). Needless to say, the catalogue did not mention the name of Fabergé or evoke any imperial provenance.
Just where the ruby Diadem owned by Maria Feodorovna (Hermitage catalogue n° 4) was acquired remains uncertain. Information gleaned from the Internet suggests it was sold some time ago as a British item from the Edwardian era.
So at least three of the four tiaras on show in the Hermitage have appeared on the market in the last decade as run-of-the-mill French or English pieces. They have passed through the hands of dealers and auctioneers, and been published in auction catalogues anyone can consult on-line. None of them have ever been previously recognized as rare imperial jewellery by Fabergé.
On what basis did Mr Ivanov re-attribute these items? No evidence is forthcoming in either the Hermitage catalogue or Mr Ivanov’s speeches and publications, which contain no mention of recent auction sales.
Nothing more really needs to be said about these ‘imperial tiaras.’ However, knowing Mr Ivanov’s ingenuity when explaining away the most glaring of inconsistencies, I shall nevertheless comment on them a little further.
One simple glance at Mr Ivanov’s ‘imperial tiaras’ is all it takes to realize they are neither Fabergé nor imperial. Explaining this is like proving a Cubist painting can’t be a Rembrandt. Neither style, design or execution have anything about to with the work of Fabergé. To claim that such ordinary pieces could have belonged to Russian Empresses is patently absurd.
We know what Fabergé’s tiaras actually looked like from several sources.
Firstly, as already mentioned, we have several examples at our disposal. Until recently, the whereabouts of four Fabergé imperial tiaras were known:
– Blue Enamel Tiara in the Albion Art Collection (published in Fabergé and the Russian Jewellers, London 2006, n° 274, pp 95 & 102; M. Lopato: The Formation & Development of the St Petersburg School of Art Jewellery in the 18th/19th Centuries [doctoral dissertation], St Petersburg 2006, p. 194)
– Forget-Me-Not Kokoshnik-Tiara in a Private Collection (G. Munn, Tiaras: A History of Splendour, Woodbridge 2001, p. 302, ill. 272; Fabergé and the Russian Jewellers, n° 249, pp 87 & 94; Lopato, op. cit., p. 194)
– Cyclamen Tiara in the Duke of Westminster Collection (Munn, pp 300/301, ill. 270; Fabergé and the Russian Jewelers, n° 269, pp 99/100)
– Myrtle Wreath Tiara in the Duke of Westminster Collection (Munn, p. 299, ill. 268; Fabergé and the Russian Jewellers, n° 262, pp 95 & 98)
Over the last fifteen years two more items have been added to this list, both acquired by the McFerrin family and now on permanent display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science:
– Leuchtenberg Diamond Tiara, bought at Christie’s London for £1.05 million in June 2007
– Aquamarine Tiara made for Grand Duchess Alexandra of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, bought at Christie’s Geneva for CHF 1,035,000 in May 2019
All these tiaras have a crystal-clear provenance and originate from the workshop of August Holmström and his son Albert – as confirmed either by hallmarks or surviving sketches. The original wooden Fabergé case has survived in some cases.
Our idea of the skilled artistry of Fabergé tiaras is complemented by documents, archival photographs and sketches.
Based on such evidence, experts have attributed two more aristocratic tiaras to Fabergé:
– Diamond Kokoshnik-Tiara made for Princess Cecilia of Prussia, sold at Sotheby’s Geneva in May 2019
– Aquamarine Tiara made for Princess Elisabeth of Hesse, offered at Sotheby’s London in October 1996
For more details of these items, see the relevant auction catalogues: Magnificent Jewels and Noble Jewels – Sotheby’s Geneva, 14 May 2019; Fine Jewels and Jewels for the Collector, Sotheby’s London – 10 October 1996. Both items not only have impeccable provenance, but also display close stylistic similarities with Fabergé’s imperial tiaras in terms of their quality and precise finish.
Mr Ivanov’s tiaras, on the other hand, are strikingly inferior in design and execution. They are crude objects of fairly simple design, made from low-value stones. Their value is consistent with the prices paid for them at auction. Moreover, two of them – the diamond tiara with floral motif (Hermitage catalogue n° 2) and the sapphire tiara (n° 3) – do not represent integral pieces of jewellery as such: each is a composite object, constructed from two dissimilar elements, executed in a different style and at a different time; these differ from one another not only in appearance, but also in the cut of the stones and design of the setting. A Fabergé attribution for the sapphire tiara can also be refuted by dating: while the diamond necklace section dates from the 1890s, when the House of Fabergé was in its pomp, the central element – a sapphire brooch – comes from the early 19th century, before Carl’s father Gustav Fabergé had even opened his first store on Bolshaya Morskaya.
Another point. Tiaras n° 4 and n° 5 in the Hermitage catalogue are ascribed to the workshop of Mikhail Perkhin – n° 4 on the basis of a hallmark on the later added loop, n° 5 for no apparent reason at all. The Perkhin workshop made jewellery, yes – but only brooches, buckles, cuff-links and similar small items, often decorated with enamel. Nothing even remotely similar to Ivanov’s Hermitage tiaras is known to have been produced under the direction of Mikhail Perkhin.
The attribution of these four tiaras to the House of Fabergé can therefore be emphatically rejected. That leaves the question of whether they could theoretically have belonged to a Russian Empress. The answer, again, is a resounding No.
Fortunately, the whereabouts of Imperial treasures after the collapse of the Romanov dynasty are well documented. Here I must again pay tribute to Tatiana Tutova’s Fate of the Palace Valuables of the Russian Imperial Household – Journals of the 1922 Moscow Kremlin Commission, which has uncovered an extensive array of archival documents. As we know, on the eve of the 1917 October Revolution almost all Imperial valuables evacuated from St Petersburg were gathered in the Moscow Kremlin. Among these items were ALL of Empress Alexandra’s items of jewellery and ornaments of value, and most of those belonging to Dowager Empress Maria.
We are talking not only about crown jewels but also personal jewellery. What exactly these items were can be judged from the inventories of the 1922 commission, which include 26 precious items of headwear – 15 of them identified by Tutova with those published in the Fersman catalogue (Alexander Fersman: Diamond Fund of the USSR –Moscow 1924-26, issues 1-4). The other eleven – including a ‘gold frame for tiara with brilliants and 8 empty settings for large stones’ – have not been identified. Among these eleven items there is not a single piece of sapphire jewellery. It follows, therefore, that talk of tiara n° 3 from the Hermitage catalogue as once belonging to Empress Alexandra is not only unfounded but mendacious. There is no reason to associate the other three tiaras with any of the unidentified items.
Lack of written information is made up for by other sources, including a wealth of comparative material. Tiaras were worn only on special occasions and in accordance with strict etiquette. Their value was dictated by their owner’s status. Although Russian sovereigns were allowed to wear simple brooches or bracelets, they could not wear modest tiaras. We know what such ‘approved’ tiaras looked like not only from numerous portraits, but also from archival photographs in the Fersman catalogue. Anyone can spot the difference between, say, Fabergé’s and what is on show in the Hermitage.
In conclusion, I would like to emphasize that none of the tiaras exhibited in the Hermitage bear the slightest resemblance to any work by Fabergé – even less to imperial jewellery. They are mundane, randomly selected English and French pieces, in plentiful supply in auction catalogues and on the shelves of specialized antique stores. Airy statements about their ‘imperial provenance’ are absolutely unfounded and not confirmed by any known source. If they were not on show in a venerable museum context, no one would think of attributing them to Fabergé for a second. Being displayed in a museum confers upon them a powerful, if spurious, legitmacy prompting many viewers – unable to trust their own eyes – to rely entirely on ‘what it says on the labels.’