Some 38 pieces of Fabergé are coming up at Koller in Zurich on June 22 in a ‘compulsory auction’ of 97 lots of Fabergé & Objets de Vertu held on behalf of the Swiss Customs Administration. In fact, this is a single-owner collection, assembled in London and New York between 2007 and 2012, and later smuggled into Switzerland without being properly declared – if the involvement of the customs authorities is anything to go on.
The (on-line) catalogue does not feature the usual estimate-band but a ‘minimum hammer price’ that does not, however, correspond to a reserve – the Terms & Conditions specify that ‘Koller may sell an item below the minimum hammer price.’ Around half the Fabergé items in the sale were bought at auction between 2010-12… for prices three times higher than those that Swiss Customs are hoping to generate in Zurich!
These 97 lots were meant to come up at Koller back in December 2019 but, for unknown reasons, the auction was called off at the last minute. The catalogue for that 2019 sale was, however, produced – with lots granted estimates which, curiously, do not always correspond to the ‘minimum hammer price’ in this new sale.
During 40 plus years of participation in auctions I’ve never seen wackier estimates. Lot 3888 estimated at CHF210,500 is one of such examples, more appear below.
The first lot in the sale is numbered 3851, would you believe – hardly a recipe for clarity or easy reading. The Fabergé items arrive in the middle of the sale, between Lots 3873-3915. They start with a very unusual pink-enamelled, gold-mounted handle in the form of a hand carved from rock crystal. I don’t doubt that the pink enamel is Fabergé but, as for the rest of it, I’m ambivalent – it looks incongruous. The ‘minimum hammer price’ is CHF41,500.
Then comes a two-tone gold miniature guéridon with a rock crystal top inlaid with opal. Assuming it’s in good nick, this is one of the most interesting pieces in the sale: Fabergé miniature furniture pieces are few and far between (Lot 3874, CHF59,000).
A nice little gold-mounted cylindrical nephrite cigarette case or ladies’ box is definitely by Fabergé, complete with inventory number and Wigström hallmark. Expectations have been slashed since 2019, when its estimate read CHF28,500-32,500 (Lot 3878, CHF13,500). But hopes remain high for a wonderful little nephrite bucket with a diamond-rimmed red enamel handle, also by Wigström, and comparable to a nephrite watering-can in the Vekselberg Collection (Lot 3879, CHF214,000).
Then come a number of modest pieces in nephrite, suitable for beginner collectors to buy now and trade away later from something bigger and better: a little bowl with pearls and bits of gold – seen one you’ve seen them all (Lot 3875, CHF14,500); a mundane letter-opener embellished with gold and enamel (Lot 3885, CHF10,500); a bowl with gold mounts (Lot 3893, CHF2,500); and a nice but simple stamp box with a gold interior (Lot 3894, CHF4,500).
In the same category of minor material we find a quartz and gold beaker (Lot 3890, CHF8,000), a white enamel pill box (Lot 3891, CHF9,500) and a green hardstone and gold desk seal with the hallmark of Michael Perchin – a nice solid piece in its original fitted case, lined with silk and velvet (Lot 3882, CHF7,000).
A nephrite, gold and enamel paper knife, acquired for £11,875 at Christie’s London in 2012, has a ‘minimum hammer price’ of just CHF3,000 (Lot 3884). Also purchased at that 2012 sale, for £63,650, were both a nephrite and enamel pen holder with gold and moonstone mounts, with the hallmark of Anna Ringe (Lot 3883, CHF13,000); and, for £49,250, a fine nephrite ink-well with gold mounts by Wigström. This is a rather useless piece in today’s world – no one uses ink anymore – and it’s a pity the rest of the desk-set is missing (Lot 3886, CHF17,000).
A nephrite compass with a central sapphire cabochon is a fine-looking piece, but equally redundant in today’s life – I’m not even sure who this dainty little thing was used by and where when it was first produced (Lot 3887, CHF52,000). Such compass is hardly of any use while resting on a fancy desk, neither can I imagine a hunter using it while wading thru soggy swamps.
Any collection would benefit from including the next item: an enamelled miniature roulette-wheel with a pearl ball, rock crystal cover and the hallmark of Fedor Afanasiev (Lot 3888, CHF210,500). It was bought for £23 from Fabergé’s Dover Street store in London on 24 November 1909 by the Cologne-born banker Sir Ernest Cassell (1852-1921), a close buddy of Edward VII. Fabergé are known to have made only one other roulette-wheel, purchased by Leopold de Rothschild and later owned by Cristina Ford, wife of Henry Ford II. Cri-Cri d’Amour used to take it to seaside picnics with her but one day, after overdoing the champers, she left it on the beach and it got washed away. Such is fate.
Four lots later we come across a heart-shaped, red enamel pill-box that may be cute, but calling it Fabergé is a bit of a stretch in my book given the absence of the Faberge mark. It sold for £34,850 against a £5,000-7,000 estimate at Christie’s in December 2009 (Lot 3892, CHF13,500).
There’s no doubting the pedigree of a beautiful mother-of-pearl cigarette case by Perchin, with twin-coloured gold rococo mounts, a silver-gilt interior with 84 zolotniki hallmark, and a lid bearing the florid WA monogram of Nikolai II’s uncle Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich, who died in 1909 (Lot 3895, CHF158,500). In 2009 this cigarette case rated a mighty £457,250 at Sotheby’s London during a sale devoted to the ‘Lost Inheritance of Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna’ (Vladimir’s wife). This inheritance had turned up in the Swedish Foreign Ministry in Stockholm, having (according to Sotheby’s) been deposited in two pillowcases at the Swedish Legation in Petrograd, then forgotten about for 90 years. The 2009 sale at Sotheby’s ran to 110 lots and yielded £7m; it included 29 items of Fabergé (19 of them cigarette cases).
Koller will be offering another perfectly fine bit of Fabergé from that Maria Pavlovna sale: a neo-Classical nephrite cigarette case with jewelled, three-colour gold and enamel mounts, including a Greek key fret within white enamel (Lot 3889, CHF34,500). In 2009 this fetched £97,250.
An interesting and unusual twin-compartment rock crystal pill-box by Perchin, with hinged gold and white enamel lids at either end, also has a prestige provenance – having been owned by King George I of Greece (1845-1913). It was bought for £73,250 at Christie’s London in 2010 (Lot 3896, CHF25,500). Less interesting are a chalcedony stamp-moistener with applied gold swags (Lot 3897, CHF30,000) and a nephrite gum-pot in the form of a pear, with a gold and enamel stalk. I’ve never liked these tasteless carved fruits. This one was purchased for £18,750 at Christie’s London in 2012 (Lot 3899, CHF7,000).
The sale has a series of small cute animals that appear in just about every Fabergé sale, starting with a chunky obsidian Seated Elephant wafting its trunk about – this cost £46,850 at Christie’s London in 2012 (Lot 3900, CHF16,500).
Koller’s menagerie is not the greatest, but the aviary has at least one high-flier: an agate Cockatoo with ruby eyes on a silver-gilt perch and the hallmark of Michael Perchin (Lot 3908, CHF98,000). The other high-flier would have been a Dodo carved from a chunk of rock crystal, also with ruby eyes – but we all know that dodos couldn’t get off the ground (Lot 3907, CHF58,500). The only other known Fabergé Dodo is a smaller model in bowenite now in the Royal Collection.
An enamelled gold and nephrite flower study of a Wild Pansy with violet and yellow petals in a rock crystal pot is a tour de force and, for my money, the star of the sale (Lot 3910, CHF163,500). When this was last auctioned, at Sotheby’s London in 2010, it made a whopping £481,250 – though back then it still had its original Fabergé wooden case, with a note in ink reading Present from Queen Alexandra to 1st Lady Iveagh. Alexandra was the sister of Empress Maria Fedorovna and wife of Edward VII; the Countess of Iveagh was born Adelaide Guinness, and nicknamed ‘Dodo’ – though whether she was the sort of bird to inspire Fabergé is open to question.
A heart-shaped rock crystal box with tiny diamonds around the rim is a small, very nice piece (Lot 3909, CHF50,500). A cute, seal-cum-scent bottle by Wigström, in the form of a carnelian Gnome with sapphire eyes, its base engraved with the cypher of Empress Alexandra, is even better (Lot 3911, CHF153,500).
The sale’s Fabergé section concludes with four small pieces of nephrite for collectors with low expectations, minimally priced between CHF7,000-24,500. They include a nephrite cigarette case sold for $104,500 at Christie’s New York in 2010 (Lot 3912, CHF24,500), and a lapis lazuli box that made £34,850 at Christie’s London later that year (Lot 3914, CHF12,000).
‘Compulsory’ sales tend to be of the ‘everything-must-go’ variety, so there may be bargains to be had at Koller. I’m hoping, however, that the many fine Fabergé pieces – several with imperial provenance – that they are proposing on June 22 will ring in the Summer with prices closer to the sun-kissed Fabergé heights of a decade ago!