RUSSIAN MATERIAL accounted for around half of Sotheby’s 144-lot sale of Fabergé, Gold Boxes & Objets de Luxe at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Geneva on November 15. There were 71 Russian items on offer: 39 sold (55%), for a total CHF551,000.
Lot 1275, Fabergé jewelled platinum and gold-mounted chalcedony
The proportion was higher for Fabergé pieces: 27 from 44 sold (61%), bringing CHF442,000. But there was nothing to write home about among those 44 items – no new discoveries or masterpieces, but lacklustre bits and pieces of little consequence. Even so, several things were quite nice… and I snaffled the most interesting one: a jewelled platinum and gold-mounted chalcedony convertible kokoshnik brooch by Holmström. This had an A La Vieille Russie provenance, was shown at the Smithsonian in 1983, appears in various publications, and retains its original case. I came in at CHF20,000 and anticipated a lengthy bidding war – so I was surprised to encounter scant competition and land the brooch for CHF35,240 (Lot 1275).
A rock crystal Red Cross ‘ice pendant,’ designed by Alma Pihl and made by workmaster Albert Holmström, fetched a mid-estimate CHF50,400. Sotheby’s dreamt up a lengthy spiel about its ‘important, continuous’ Swedish provenance and likened it to both Faberge’s frosty-looking Winter Egg of 1913 and the Fabergé ‘ice pendant’ they sold in London for a considerably heftier £214,200 on July 5 – and which they claimed was in its original case. I don’t think so: Fabergé cases were designed for piece to fit snugly inside, not loosely as with the Fabergé case here. It was of roughly the right size, but nothing more than that: a marriage of convenience, in my opinion. (A few hundred bucks can buy you an original Fabergé holly-wood case, that some enterprising folks have refitted to accommodate either Fabergé forgeries or authentic pieces, and maximize their commercial potential.)
As for the Geneva pendant, I had a good look at the thing at the viewing. These Fabergé pendants are typically matt and ‘sand-blasted’ – but here the back was shiny and had traces of uneven tooling – some kind of machining. That did not incite great faith in its veracity. Nor did its ‘indistinct scratched inventory number.’
A beautiful Fabergé gold and guilloché enamel box (Lot 1288) was sadly damaged, otherwise I’d have been contender numero uno. Instead it had to make do with a bottom-estimate CHF30,240.
Lot 1288, Fabergé gold, guilloché enamel box
Lot 1291, which sold for a quadruple-estimate CHF52,920, was the sale’s most troubling item. It was described as an ‘imperial Fabergé jewelled Cairngorm smoky quartz model of an Owl,’ with its ‘reverse side left in its natural, rough state.’
I’ve never ever seen a Fabergé creature – owl, dog or snake – left in a partly ‘natural, rough state’ – i.e. unfinished. I’ve been to Fabergé exhibitions in New York, Munich, London and Moscow – and never seen a bona fide creature that wasn’t fully carved. My Fabergé library has just about every Fabergé book or catalogue ever published, but none of them refer to a chunk of mineral like this. So I cannot possibly endorse this Owl’s authenticity. Nor could any of the Fabergé scholars or respected dealers I spoke to. Just about everybody whose opinion counts shared the same opinion.
The Owl, reported Sotheby’s, has a ‘scratched inventory number 25463.’ I examined this inventory number in Geneva and found it less than convincing. Similar pieces in my stock have inventory numbers that are easily readable. The inventory number on this owl is rough and unclear.
The Owl was reportedly consigned from a ‘Private German Collection’ – fine. Why not? Sotheby’s also claimed – citing a statement by Prince Andrei of Russia, eldest nephew of Tsar Nicholas II – that it was ‘carved by Fabergé for my great Aunt Queen Alexandra from a stone from the Cairngorm near Balmoral.’
A Statement by Prince Andrei of Russia
Prince Andrei made his statement in 1972, when he was 75. In April 1916 he was 19. What a memory!
But where’s the evidence? Where’s the invoice? I can write that sort of ‘I’m Ruzhnikov – trust me’ bullshit all day long.
Sotheby’s went on to claim that ‘talented lapidaries worked a specimen from the Cairngorms specifically for the recipient of this carving, Empress Alexandra Feodorovna.’
Just hang on a minute! Prince Andrei wrote about ‘Queen Alexandra.’ Now Sotheby’s are referring to ‘Empress Alexandra.’ Are they the same person?
Apparently so, according to Sotheby’s – who suggest ‘it is possible that the present Cairngorm Owl was commissioned as a tactile memory’ of an 1896 visit to Balmoral by Tsar Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra, ‘one of Queen Victoria’s most beloved grandchildren.’
The energetic Queen Victoria, declare Sotheby’s, ‘ascended one of the Cairngorms to collect specimens of Cairngorm quartz such as that used in the present owl’ – whose smoky quartz was ‘likely sourced near to Balmoral’ and ‘left in its natural, raw state’ to mirror the ‘rocky terrain of the Cairngorms mountain range near Balmoral.’
Did you ever read such speculative tosh?
One friend of mine felt this ‘raw, natural’ chunk of mineral resembled Mount Narodnaya in the Urals, while a dealer colleague said it reminded him of somewhere in the Caucasus.
As the song almost goes: Smoky Quartz Gets In Your Eyes.
A photo of Nicholas II’s wife Alexandra appears in Sotheby’s Lot Description (alongside those of Nicholas, Prince Andre and Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna). Alexandra was the sister-in-law of Prince Andre’s mother, Grand Duchess Xenia. In other words, she was Prince Andrei’s Aunt.
Prince Andrei’s ‘Great Aunt Alexandra’ was the Dowager Empress’s sister: Queen Alexandra of England, wife of Edward VII.
That sort of sloppy cataloguing makes you wonder if Sotheby’s have also, like Christie’s, laid off all their specialist Russian staff and just got some unpaid intern to write Lot Descriptions after five minutes genning up on Wikipedia.
Under Provenance, Sotheby’s declare that the Owl was ‘purchased by the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna from the St Petersburg branch of Fabergé on 5 April 1916 for 300 rubles.’ They subsequently identify ‘the recipient of this carving’ as ‘Empress Alexandra Feodorovna’ – implying that the Dowager Empress bought the Owl for her daughter-in-law.
That’s implausible on various counts. The two women hated the sight of each other, for starters.
Then, if the Owl were really commissioned as a souvenir of a visit Empress Alexandra made to Balmoral in 1896, why was it not delivered until twenty years after the event ?
And if the Owl – as Sotheby’s assert – were made in ‘St Petersburg, circa 1900’ why did it languish in a drawer on Bolshaya Morskaya for over a decade before Fabergé could find someone to buy it?
And why could none of Carl Fabergé’s hardstone carvers find the time or desire to finish the thing before the Dowager Empress waltzed into the Fabergé shop at Easter 1916?
Sotheby’s claim that ‘the present owl is recorded as entry number 2219 in the Pavlovsk Palace Inventory.’ Again, they provide no proof beyond a supposed correlation with the owl’s scratchy inventory number (whose authenticity is open to doubt). There were dozens of owls at Pavlovsk: a right old parliament of them (yes, parliament is the collective noun for owls – how apt for the Duma-loving Romanovs). All these owls were the finished item, front and back.
Was the Dowager Empress really shopping for half-finished knick-knacks in 1916, when Imperial Russia was fighting for survival?
Even if she was: how did the Owl end up with her sister Queen Alexandra in faraway London – where Fabergé had closed their store the year before because it was impossible to supply it during wartime?
The Dowager Empress would leave Russia in April 1919 on HMS Marlborough, a ship sent by her nephew King George V to ferry her and other bluebloods (including Grand Duchess Xenia and Prince Andre’s five brothers) to Malta, whence the Dowager Empress travelled to London before leaving in August for her native Denmark. In London she stayed briefly with her elder sister Alexandra. Who knows, she may even have presented her with a half-finished Owl smuggled out of Crimea to thank the Brits for saving her from the Bolsheviks.
I’m speculating, of course. Sotheby’s do not provide one shred of evidence as to how the Owl reached England from Russia.
Prince Andrei, meanwhile, had left Russia in December 1918 to seek Western support for the White Army at the Paris Peace Conference, which opened on 18 January 1919. Six years later, if Sotheby’s are to be believed, he was bequeathed Queen Alexandra’s half-finished Owl. What a magnificent way to remember his favourite Aunt! Especially as owls were ‘one of the favourite animals of Queen Alexandra’ (as Sotheby’s thoughtfully remind us). Not only that: ‘Owls held a special place in the hearts of the British royal family… there are two Fabergé owls in the Royal Collection today.’ So how come this beauty was allowed to fly away?
Prince Andrei no doubt gazed at his precious Owl lovingly every day, until Sir Mathew Martin Wilson made him an offer for it he couldn’t refuse 46½ years later. It’s amazing that the Prince hang on to his Owl for so long: perpetually penniless and without an occupation, he eked out his existence in a rambling home owned by his second wife: Provender House near Faversham in Kent. When she died in 2000 Provender House (admits its website) ‘was almost derelict.’
The sale also featured a couple of cigarette-cases in ‘gun metal’ and another in ‘blued steel’ – the sort of modest, workmanlike materials Fabergé were reduced to working with after World War One broke out (along with chunks of Scottish quartz). No wonder they didn’t sell. Neither did any of the Wigström enamel desk-clocks: not the circular green clock (Lot 1300, est. CHF70,000-90,000); not the triangular lavender clock (Lot 1297, CHF50,000-70,000); and not the smaller, circular lavender clock (Lot 1303, CHF35,000-55,000).
The sale’s other anticipated highlight – a tarnished silver-gilt kovsch by Rückert, with badly damaged ‘Vasnetsov’ miniature – struggled to CHF37,800, short of its CHF40,000-60,000 estimate.
Lot 1329, Jewelled silver-gilt, cloisonné and en plein pictorial enamel cigarette case
There were 27 non-Fabergé Russian items in the sale, of which 13 (48%) found a new home – with top price a low-estimate CHF18,900 for a silver-gilt and cloisonné enamel cigarette-case with maker’s mark SS, featuring a miniature version of Vasnetsov’s Bogatyrs (Lot 1329).
There’s not a lot on the market right now. Major Russians buyers are under sanction and cannot take part in sales as either vendors or buyers: they’re pretty much out of things. After scraping together 54 Fabergé pieces in London last May, Sotheby’s mustered just 44 here in Geneva. The CHF551,000 (£484,000) totalled by the sale’s Russian items included 25% buyer’s premium (£97,000) which, added to 10% seller’s commission (£39,000), will have left Sotheby’s with a profit of around £136,000: hardly enough to cover their Russian Department’s salaries, expenses and the cost of hiring one of Geneva’s swankiest hotels. Business on such a level is not sustainable and, if Sotheby’s persist with such sales, I wouldn’t be surprised if their Russian Department disintegrated like Christie’s.
Personally I’m kinda glad about this is situation – it should mean more scope for dealers who are tired of auction houses strangling monopoly. People will have to continue selling: hopefully they’ll google Dealers rather than Auction Houses before deciding how best to do so.
ON-LINE CATALOGUE OF ERRORS
When on-line sales became predominant during Covid, auctioneers took the opportunity to post catalogues exclusively on their websites – and to forget about printed versions. It now seems Sotheby’s have stopped producing printed catalogues altogether. I suspect the corporate number-crunchers and penny-pinchers responsible for that decision are sawing off a branch that supports them. After all art business is different from selling pirozhkis or used tires. People love catalogues. People collect catalogues. They are both an important tool of the trade and vital for research libraries. I hear that Sotheby’s staff are just as upset about the demise of the printed catalogue as dealers and collectors. Not only that, but – conveniently or furtively – Sotheby’s have started removing unsold lots from their catalogues posted on-line. Why? Because when people consign items that don’t sell, it’s easier to re-offer them six months later if everything appears hunky dory – with all trace of saleroom failure expunged. This policy is ethically dubious – what about the ‘transparency’ auction firms are always boasting about? – but great for sellers. Yeah, but what about buyers? And dealers or researchers?