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5 minutes with... An onyx polar bear by Fabergé

Russian Art specialist Margo Oganesian tells of the detective work that went into tracing the provenance of this precious bear — offered in London on November 27 — and its revelation of the bond between two dynasties with a shared love of Scotland

‘When we were first presented with this carved model of a polar bear by Carl Fabergé we knew we had something unusual on our hands,’ says Christie's Russian Art specialist Margo Oganesian.

A large and important white onyx model of a bear, by Fabergé, circa 1909. 5  in (12.7  cm) wide. Estimate £200,000-300,000. This lot is offered in Important Russian Art on 27 November 2017  at Christie’s in London

A large and important white onyx model of a bear, by Fabergé, circa 1909. 5 in (12.7 cm) wide. Estimate: £200,000-300,000. This lot is offered in Important Russian Art on 27 November 2017 at Christie’s in London

Offered in the Important Russian Art  sale on 27 November at Christie’s in London, the 5 inch-long (12.7 cm) onyx bear came to the specialists in its original wood case, its cover stamped with the inscription ‘B.G. Scotland. 1909.’ 

The significance of the inscriptions Scotland and 1909 intrigued our specialists

The significance of the inscriptions 'Scotland' and '1909' intrigued our specialists

Oganesian and her colleagues in the Russian Art department were keen to get to the bottom of the inscription, particularly as markings like these are ‘quite rare for Fabergé cases’, the specialist explains.

‘We knew that the bear had once belonged to the de Ganays, a French noble family, and that the initials “B.G.” possibly stood for Marquise Berthe de Ganay,’ Oganesian continues. ‘But the significance of the location and the year were unknown.’

Still, these were useful clues. The inscription of ‘Scotland’ on the case, coupled with the fact that the piece had been owned by a French aristocrat, suggested that the bear had perhaps been purchased from Fabergé’s London shop, which was extremely popular with European royal and aristocratic families. ‘We started by searching Fabergé’s London ledgers for all the models of bears sold in London,’ says Oganesian. 

One purchase, recorded on 10 September 1909, was particularly interesting: ‘Polar Bear, white onyx’, purchased for £26.10s by Virginia Fair Vanderbilt, wife of William Kissam Vanderbilt II.

Virginia Fair Vanderbilt and William Kissam Vanderbilt II
Virginia Fair Vanderbilt and William Kissam Vanderbilt II

Interestingly, Fabergé’s ledgers show that on the day Mrs Vanderbilt visited Fabergé’s shop, she was accompanied by Martine-Marie-Pol, Countess of Béarn — the sister of Berthe de Ganay. ‘This suggests that Virginia Vanderbilt sought the Countess of Béarn’s advice on a suitable gift for her sister,’ observes Oganesian.

Fabergé’s ledgers show that on the day Mrs Vanderbilt visited the London branch of Fabergé in September 1909, she was accompanied by Martine-Marie-Pol, Countess of Béarn

Fabergé’s ledgers show that on the day Mrs Vanderbilt visited the London branch of Fabergé in September 1909, she was accompanied by Martine-Marie-Pol, Countess of Béarn

This discovery moved the investigation forward, but the significance of ‘Scotland’ -- and the relationship between Virginia Fair Vanderbilt and Berthe de Ganay -- remained unclear. ‘We kept looking for clues, and finally came across newspaper articles from 1909 and 1910 which helped give us the full story,’ says Oganesian.

A 1909 article from The American Register  revealed that Virginia Fair Vanderbilt and the Marquise Berthe de Ganay were at Beaufort Castle, Scotland, together with their husbands, in August of that year. A subsequent article in The New York Times mentions the 1909 visit to Beaufort, and details a second shared holiday in Scotland in August 1910

A 1909 article from The American Register  revealed that Virginia Fair Vanderbilt and the Marquise Berthe de Ganay were at Beaufort Castle, Scotland, together with their husbands, in August of that year. A subsequent article in The New York Times mentions the 1909 visit to Beaufort, and details a second shared holiday in Scotland in August 1910

‘Looking deeper into their relationship, we found that the Vanderbilts and the de Ganays lived near each other in Fontainebleau in France,’ Oganesian explains. The couples regularly entertained the same circle of friends, and Beaufort Castle, Lord Lovat’s Scottish seat, turned out to be the ideal location for the friends to host large house parties, which were recorded in newspapers in both England and the United States.

Among their guests were Consuelo Vanderbilt, Duchess of Marlborough, her son Lord Ivor Spencer-Churchill, and other American and British politicians and socialites. On 19 June 1910 The Washington Post  reported that ‘invitations to these [holidays were] anxiously sought, not only on account of the prestige of the hostess [Mrs Vanderbilt], but also because of the splendid shooting and fishing which the estate affords.’

The timing of Berthe de Ganay and Virginia Vanderbilt’s stay in Scotland, one month before the purchase of the white onyx polar bear, suggests that this lifelike model was given to Berthe de Ganay as a souvenir of their joint holiday. ‘Fabergé provided luxurious presents to the elite from all over the world,’ says Oganesian. ‘This exquisite model of a polar bear, acquired more than 100 years ago, is a wonderful testimony to its role in Edwardian high society.’