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To All Fabergé Fans of White Elephants

By August 18, 2020 No Comments

ALERT READERS MAY REMEMBER an article entitled A Fabergé Farago of Fakes and Impostors published on this website on May 2 and, if so, will be impatiently waiting to learn how Alexis von Tiesenhausen, Head of Christie’s Russian Department, replied to the e-mail I sent him on April 14 – asking why Christie’s continued to turn a blind eye to Valentin V. Skurlov endorsing the fake ‘Imperial Empire Egg’ as an authentic Fabergé, on swanky letter-headed paper with double-headed eagles and Fabergé Research Consultant Christie’s Russian Department plastered all over it.

Surprise, surprise – no update on the Tiesenhausen front. I received some waffly nonsense from one of Christie’s staff – but nothing from Tsar Alexis himself; he is way too important to stoop down to my level. What with coronavirus, and overseeing a three-week sale of Russian bric-à-brac, Christie’s worst ever (see my report of July 27), Alexis has been a busy man.

I can, however, update you with my latest thoughts on the ‘Imperial Empire Egg,’ which the great lawyer Hal from Ohio once tried to sell me for $55 million. A friend in the trade recently heard that the price has gone up to $60 million. No wonder – coronavirus, the state of the global economy, the price of gold and impending inflation have surely affected the value of world treasures… our 1902 egg being no exception.

I recently re-read The Last Grand Duchess, the biography of Grand Duchess Olga (youngest sister of Tsar Nicholas II), based on interviews she gave journalist Ian Vorres (a graduate of Toronto University who later founded the Vorres Museum in his native Greece) towards the end of her not uneventful life. As the ‘Imperial Empire Egg’ was supposedly made to commemorate Olga’s marriage to Prince Peter of Oldenburg, I scanned the pages eagerly seeking her utterances on Fabergé. She mentions the great name only twice:

1) In connection with a fire at the Hôtel du Palais in Biarritz in Autumn 1901, a few months after her wedding, when her husband lost  ‘all his uniforms and decorations, among them the famous Danish Order of the White Elephant made expressly for him by Fabergé’ (‘white elephant’ being a phrase one readily associates with Mr Skurlov’s egg).

2) Regarding ‘how in 1925 the Soviet government, being badly in need of foreign currency, sent a lot of Romanov jewels to be sold in England, and I heard that May [George V’s wife Queen Mary] had bought quite a few – including a collection of Fabergé’s Easter eggs…. I also knew that at least one item of my own, looted from the palace in Petrograd, was among those shipped to England, but its price apparently proved too high even for May, and I suppose it is still in the Kremlin. It was one of my wedding-presents – an exquisite fan made of mother-of-pearl and studded all over with diamonds and pearls.’

I think it fair to assume that if Olga could remember a Fabergé Fan, she would have remembered any Fabergé Egg made in her honour.

Not that there was much to honour about her marriage to Prince Peter. ‘I was tricked into it’ Olga told Vorres. ‘I shared his roof for nearly fifteen years and never once were we husband and wife.’ After the wedding she suffered acute depression and her hair fell out. The marriage was annulled in 1916. Olga fled Russia in 1920 with her second husband, Colonel Nikolai Kulikovsky – living in Denmark until 1948, then emigrating to Toronto.

George V and Queen Mary did indeed acquire some Fabergé Eggs – the Colonnade Egg (1901), the Basket of Flowers Egg (1910) and the Mosaic Egg (1914) – although they bought them in the early 1930s, not in 1925, and from the trade (Armand Hammer, Wartski, Cameo Corner) rather than the Soviet government. The largest private collection of Fabergé Eggs, of course, belongs to the Fabergé Museum in St Petersburg founded by Viktor Vekselberg, and expertly managed by old chum Vladimir Voronchenko.

Olga’s diamond- and pearl-studded Fabergé fan ended up in the U.S.A. rather than the Kremlin. Since 2011 it has been on display in Gallery 555 of New York’s Metropolitan Museum, as part of an exhibition entitled Fabergé From The Matilda Geddings Gray Foundation Collection. Matilda Gray (1885-1971), we read, was ‘a Louisiana heiress and philanthropist who acquired her first object by Fabergé in 1933.’ Before landing in the Met, her collection was on show in the New Orleans Museum of Art.

This ‘Imperial Bridal Fan’ (see above) was presented to Grand Duchess Olga by the Tsar in Summer 1901. It has guard sticks of gold overlaid with yellow enamel, embellished with Olga’s diamond-studded crowned monogram. It was painted by Sergei Solomko with the new couple receiving gifts of bread and salt, above a small view of Gatchina. Solomko helped illustrate a special edition of Gogol’s Dead Souls in 1901, and also worked as an illustrator for Нива (like Ivan Vladimirov).

 

The fan was made by Mikhail Perkhin – Fabergé’s top workmaster, to whom he confided his Imperial Easter Eggs among other things. Valentin Skurlov brazenly claims the ‘Imperial Empire Egg’ has Perkhin’s personal mark and is an ‘unquestionably authentic historical work produced by the House of Fabergé’ – commissioned by the Tsar for his mother, Dowager Empress Maria Fedorovna for Easter 1902.

So, after ordering a mere Fan for his sister’s wedding, the Tsar followed up with an elaborate Egg nine months later, to celebrate a marriage that everyone knew was a sham – at a time when his desperately unhappy sister had gone bald and was wearing a wig?

That’s what Grand Duke Skurlov and his nebulous cohort of accomplices/supporters would have us believe – apparently with the continuous tacit consent of Alexis von Tiesenhausen, Head of Christie’s Russian Department Worldwide. Christie’s stubborn unwillingness to ban Skurlov from using the Christie’s name on his letterhead for the past dozen years is inexplicable. Christie’s “go to hell, none of your business” approach will hurt their reputation: everybody still remembers (and chuckles over) Tiesenhausen’s/Christie’s defeat in the Kustodiev (Odalisque) trial in 2010, squandering close to £5,000,000 – a serious chunk of change for any department, let alone Russian. I am lost for words, and cannot understand why Christie’s do not relinquish their apparently unconditional support for Valentin Skurlov – the malignant self-appointed Knight of such glorious awards as listed
below.

It’s true that the ‘Consultant to Christie’s Russian Department’ has so many titles it seems almost impossible to doubt his stellar credentials. At last count these included Honorary Academician of the Russian Academy of Arts, Academic Secretary of the Fabergé Memorial Foundation, Expert Appraiser of Fine Art for the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation, Honoured Worker of the Art of Stone-Cutting, Knight of the Order of Mikhail Perkhin, Knight of the Order of Franz Birbaum, Knight of the Order of A.K. Denisov-Uralsky and Grand Knight of the Order of Carl Fabergé.

If, however, Tiesenhausen is champing at the bit to receive all these Orders, Christie’s silence over Skurlov is totally understandable. Should Alexis stop pandering to Skurlov, bang goes his chance of multiple knighthoods!

And a short message to Knight Skurlov:

Valyukha, amigo, what are the criteria for plastering your awards around the world? Who truly deserves these decorations?

Why haven’t Viktor Vekselberg or Vladimir Voronchenko received the Order of Mikhail Perkhin? Or the Order of Franz Birbaum? Or the Order of A.K. Denisov-Uralsky?

Why haven’t I, come to that? I’d be thrilled to wear even a 3rd Class Order of Henrik Wigström on my lapel. Shame it’s not out yet. With W being one of the last letters in the alphabet, I guess I’ll be waiting quite some time….

How about all the experts in the West who have traded, organized exhibitions and written about Fabergé all their lives? Don’t they deserve an Order or two, too?

Finally, on a serious note – Viktor Vekselberg and Vladimir Voronchenko have to be on the very top of the award list. Nobody has done more for the promotion of the name of Fabergé than them!

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