Collecting Guide: 15 things you need to know about Fabergé
Russian Art specialist Helen Culver Smith takes us on a guided tour of the legendary jewellery house, looking at everything from the iconic imperial eggs to flowers, figurines and snuff-boxes, and the distinct styles of its various branches and workmasters
While it was the magnificent jewelled enamel Easter eggs that made the House of Fabergé so famous, they represent only a fraction of its artistic creation. The head workmasters of Fabergé transformed everything from cigarette cases to mantel clocks into imaginative works of art. It was this trademark ability to enhance everyday objects through the application of sophisticated enamelling techniques, goldsmithing and stone-setting that made Fabergé internationally famous throughout the royal courts of Europe.
Even its rivals during the period, such as Cartier and Tiffany, clearly drew inspiration from the great Russian jeweller. By studying the range of objects created by Fabergé — including frames, hardstone animals, flowers, bell-pushes and jewellery — we can gain insight into the ways in which they were exchanged as imperial gifts and personal tokens.
The imperial family were Fabergé’s most important clients, and the Easter eggs were its most important commissions. Peter Carl Fabergé — also known as Karl Gustavovich Fabergé — first attracted the attention of the Russian imperial family at the Pan-Russian Exhibition in Moscow in 1882, where he exhibited a replica of a 4th-century B.C. gold bangle from the Scythian Treasure in the Hermitage Museum. Emperor Alexander III was so impressed by the accuracy of Fabergé’s copy that works by the jeweller were put on view at the Hermitage as representations of Russia’s great craftsmanship.
In 1885 the House of Fabergé received the title of ‘Supplier to the Court of His Imperial Majesty’ and received its first commission for an imperial Easter egg. Just over 50 Fabergé eggs were made and the design and creation of each took the firm more than a year to complete. It is exceptionally rare, and therefore very exciting, when one of these objects comes on to the market.
The great success of Fabergé meant that works were copied from very early on. The prevalence of fakes makes it important to see as many pieces as possible offered by reputable auction houses, reputable dealers and in museum collections. In particular, we examine the quality of enamelling, the crispness of chasing and the overall design of works.
Works that imitate Fabergé are often over-decorated with imperial symbols, such as the double-headed eagle. Even the age of a piece can be deceptive, because we also see turn-of-the-century continental objects that have been retouched with Russian Fabergé marks to enhance value. The marks on a piece should be the last thing you examine, because it is suspicious when they have been heavily struck.
Following a grand tour of the treasuries of Europe and his experience of repairing objects of vertu in the Hermitage Museum, Fabergé revived various enamelling techniques and expanded their design possibilities. Fabergé went on to invent more than 145 new shades of enamelling.
Fabergé created varied designs on the surface of precious metals and covered them with richly pigmented layers of glass enamel. Most notably, he perfected the extremely challenging technique of enamelling en ronde bosse (in the round), which can be seen on the firm’s most impressive eggs.
Fabergé enamels are often created by layering enamel in a variety of colours to create depth. The result is a surface that captures the moving light. When looking for works with Fabergé’s signature technique, it is important to study the layers of enamel. The surface should have a smooth polish and there should be minimal firing flaws or bubbles in the glass.
When Carl Fabergé and his brother Agathon took over their father’s jewellery business in 1882, its output increased so rapidly that they could not manage all the workshops themselves. Carl Fabergé decided to employ highly skilled goldsmiths to run their own workshops under the name of Fabergé.
These head workmasters developed their own characteristic styles, with the finished product ultimately approved by Carl Fabergé or one of his deputies. When looking at a piece it can be very helpful to understand the types of objects in which each workmaster specialised, and their specific idiom. For example, Michael Perchin’s trademark styles are often considered to be the Neo-Rococo and Renaissance. He is also known for the high quality of his enamelling, chasing of gold mounts, and use of vari-coloured gold.
Works with established provenance are the most valuable. For a specialist, it is always exciting to discover a piece that has descended directly through the family of one of Fabergé’s notable patrons. Over the past 10 years, collections with imperial and royal provenance are those that have most excited the market.
The provenance of works can be researched further when they have an original scratched inventory number. This number can sometimes be used to find the original Fabergé invoice for a work, which tells us who purchased the piece, when and for how much.
Fabergé imperial presentation pieces represent another important collecting area, and they often have diplomatic provenance. The imperial Russian court was renowned for presenting lavish gifts to Russian and foreign dignitaries, a tradition that flourished during the reign of Emperor Nicholas II.
A jewelled presentation snuff-box (tabakerka, from the French tabatière), set with a portrait of the Emperor, was the most valuable gift awarded. More common gifts include small pieces of jewellery such as brooches, cufflinks and stickpins decorated with imperial symbols.
We can sometimes match the scratched number on these pieces to the Imperial Cabinet ledgers, which contain the description of each item, its cost, the name of the court supplier, and the name of the recipient.
As many as 500 diverse craftsmen were employed by Fabergé in every aspect of the firm’s creations — including the boxes that housed pieces. Although Fabergé sometimes varied the type of wood used and the colour of the velvet lining, original boxes are most often made of holly wood and lined with cream silk and velvet. The silk is stamped with the imperial warrant, the name of the firm and a listing of the locations in which it had branches: St. Petersburg, Moscow, Odessa and London.
As with most jewellery boxes, it is easy for the original case to become disassociated, so finding a piece that fits perfectly in its original bespoke box is particularly exciting.
Fabergé flowers are not always marked and can vary greatly in terms of style. Again, established provenance is very important for these pieces. The value of Fabergé flowers is enhanced by the fact that only around 80 flower and fruit studies are known to have survived; their creation was a particularly collaborative process, involving many skilled artists and goldsmiths.
Designs were often executed by Carl Fabergé himself. The work was then carried out in stages: setting the precious stones, enamelling the flowers, adding the gold stalks and grasses, and finally assembling the flowers. The quality of the mounts on the flowers, the individuation of its parts and the thoughtfulness of the design are important indicators that the work is by Fabergé.
Perhaps the hardest area of Fabergé’s production to authenticate is carved hardstone models of animals and figures. Fabergé worked with a number of talented lapidaries, such as the Imperial Peterhof Lapidary works and factories in Idar-Oberstein in Germany, sourcing hardstones for vases, boxes and whimsical models of animals.
As a result it can be very difficult to differentiate works by Fabergé from the lapidaries’ own productions. Fabergé would often repolish the figures they sold and was completely responsible for mounting them, so key elements to study can be the finish of the polish and the mounts around eyes or other jewelled elements of works in hardstone.
Following its success in St. Petersburg, in 1887 the firm established a branch in Moscow. As the historical centre of the Russian silver trade, Moscow presented new opportunities for Fabergé to expand the range of its designs.
Fabergé’s monumental works in silver were made exclusively in Moscow and were often designed in the Neo-Russian style. These imaginatively designed works are among the finest objects produced by the firm and were usually given to commemorate important anniversaries, as diplomatic offerings, and as trophies.
The eclectic range of designs seen in Fabergé’s Moscow production reflects the diversity of its clientele and differs greatly from St. Petersburg works, which are what we more typically associate with Fabergé. Works that epitomise the branch of Fabergé in which they were made are highly collectable and often can be recognised without looking at the marks on the piece.
Records of Fabergé’s original designs can be tremendously helpful when studying a work. Christie’s notably sold a collection of original designs from the house of Fabergé from 1989, which included designs for jewellery and works in silver, hardstone and enamel.
It is very exciting when we can connect an extant work by Fabergé to its original design; the insight it gives us into the creative process is invaluable. Scholarship in the field of Fabergé was advanced by the publication of two important books on the designs. In 1993, Fabergé: Lost and Found by Kenneth Snowman, a lost album of Fabergé jewellery designs for works by Albert Holmström, offered excellent insight into Fabergé’s most talented jeweller’s work.
A further album of designs was published in 2000 (Golden Years of Fabergé: Drawings and Objects from the Wigström Workshop by U. Tillander-Godenhielm, et al), which includes a variety of coloured original designs from the workshop of Fabergé’s head workmaster, Henrik Wigström. Studying these albums is very good way to familiarise yourself with the hallmark details of works by Fabergé.
The Russian system of hallmarks includes a mark for the city of production, the date of the piece, the standard of gold or silver used and the name of the maker.
A variety of marks can be seen on works by Fabergé, associated with the different branches of the firm. For example, works from St. Petersburg are marked ‘Fabergé’ in Cyrillic, while Moscow pieces are marked ‘K. Fabergé’ in Cyrillic and include the double-headed eagle of the imperial warrant. Objects that were produced for the London branch were hallmarked with ‘Fabergé’ in Latin.
The House of Fabergé had a number of workshops, including Moscow, St. Petersburg and Odessa, each supervised by a workmaster such as Michael Perchin, Erik Kollin, Henrik Wigström, August Holmström and Julius Rappoport. The city and assay marks on a piece should always be consistent with the workmaster’s initials.
Given that works by Fabergé are more than 100 years old, it is rare to find them in pristine condition. General surface scratching and light wear are to be expected and do not have a great impact on value. Damage to Fabergé’s signature enamelling is more problematic, however, because it is very difficult to restore effectively.
Other points of condition to look for are cracks to hardstone objects, damage to the functional parts of frames and clocks, and missing or replaced gold mounts.
As Fabergé scholarship has advanced, so has interest in the firm’s competitors — important imperial presentation pieces were made not only by Fabergé, but also by a handful of other Russian jewellers whose works rival those of Fabergé, sometimes even surpassing them in quality.
One of Fabergé’s most significant competitors was the firm of Bolin. At its peak, Bolin supplied more to the Imperial Court than all other jewellers put together. The firm’s most valuable works include imperial tiaras and snuff-boxes.
The British Royal Collection is one of the largest and most important collections to hold a significant number works by Fabergé. Acquired through the exchange of birthday and Christmas gifts between the Russian, Danish and British royal families, it is unique in its quality and range. Look out for Royal Collection Trust exhibitions featuring Fabergé: the next one planned is part of the ‘The Russian Season’ at the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich, opening in October 2017.
If you are in Russia, make sure to visit the Fabergé Museum in St. Petersburg and the Kremlin Armoury in Moscow, both featuring as many as 20 Fabergé Easter eggs.
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in the United States, housing the remarkable collection assembled by Lillian Thomas Pratt, including five Imperial Easter eggs, should also be on your list. This collection was recently toured to the Palace Museum in Beijing, showing the international interest in and enduring popularity of works by Fabergé.