‘It was an amazing moment, to watch this tiny rhino whizz along the tabletop in our warehouse for the first time,’ says Helen Culver Smith, head of the Russian Art department at Christie’s in London, of a silver rhinoceros automaton made by Fabergé around 1909.
‘It’s an object that’s been known to us because it’s so well-exhibited,’ Culver Smith explains, ‘but I had never seen it in motion. Fabergé automatons are very rare outside of museum collections, and to be able to handle one, winding the key, watching it walk and wag its tail, was extraordinary.’
The silver rhinoceros automaton leads the Important Russian Art sale on 27 November at Christie’s in London. But it took a while for Culver Smith and her colleagues in the department to work up the courage to see if there was still life in the century-old toy.
‘Despite our contact with the collection over the years, we had never dared to wind it. Finally, we asked an automaton specialist to assist us when we first put the key into the rhino’s side.’ In four turns, he had it zipping along. ‘I never thought it would be that simple!’ Culver Smith says. ‘But certainly in its time, it was wound often — it was an exceptional toy.’
‘Seeing the internal mechanism up close was pretty incredible as well,’ the specialist continues. ‘Usually we appreciate Fabergé for its enamelling or the quality of the materials used. But watching the mechanical side at work was fascinating, and really elevated the object in my mind.
‘And to think about the way this was given, from the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna to her favourite grandson, Prince Vasili, sometime around 1914 or 1915, adds a remarkable level of tangible history.’
The rhinoceros comes to Christie’s as part of a significant collection of works by Fabergé, carefully assembled with a focus on imperial provenance, as well as on pieces that are ‘representative of the most important production of the firm’, says Culver Smith.
Fabergé was famous for the whimsy of its miniature objets de fantasie, including tiny replica furniture, often with hinged or functional elements. A miniature model of a sedan chair (below), made circa 1899-1903, ‘embodies what we expect from Fabergé — the most advanced enamelling technique possible,’ the specialist says. Purchased by rubber magnate Maximilian Othmar Neuscheller from Fabergé’s St Petersburg shop between 1900 and 1917, this is probably the best-known object in the collection.
‘One of the extraordinary things about this object is the way it simulates a real sedan chair on a small scale,’ says Culver Smith. ‘In miniature you have the incredible use of gold paillons within the guilloché enamelling, which create this beautiful design on the exterior; inside you have mother-of-pearl formed to mimic silk. In the windows you have etched rock crystal, mirroring the diaphanous curtains that would have given the Empress privacy as she rode along.’
The door of the miniature carriage is hinged and opens, while the two handles are also hinged and can be removed. ‘To examine it is to realise why Fabergé is Fabergé,’ marvels the specialist.
Two cigarette cases, exchanged between members of the Imperial family, were designed for everyday use but were no less expertly executed. One, a guilloché enamel and two-colour case made around 1890, was given by Empress Maria Feodorovna to her husband, Emperor Alexander III, on their 24th wedding anniversary. It is among the few items that the Dowager Empress managed to take with her when she escaped Russia in 1919.
With a bit of research, our specialists were able to match the handwriting in the engraved inscription on the case to Maria Feodorovna’s handwriting in a letter to her son Nicholas, written only two days after the anniversary.
Similar detective work went into tracing the provenance of a scarlet enamel cigarette case from 1893. ‘This was made using what we can only guess is a combination of engine-turned and hand-engraved guilloché — a very complex technique that we rarely see,’ Culver Smith explains. ‘It was a Christmas gift from Alexander III to the future Nicholas II — the last tsar — when he was 25 years old.’
A handwriting sample from Alexander III’s diary was used to identify the handwriting in the red case. ‘You could actually directly match the words in the diary with important words on the case, such as “Papa”,’ says Culver Smith.
Twenty years after Nicholas II received the scarlet silver case, Alma Pihl, a largely self-taught female designer at Fabergé, was working in her studio and saw frost flowers forming on the windowpane. That became the inspiration for a special commission of snowflake brooches for oil magnate Dr. Emmanuel Nobel in 1913.
Nobel had requested 40 small pieces of jewellery, which he planned to tuck into white linen napkins at his company parties. Probably intended as souvenirs from Russia for Nobel’s international clientele, the brooches were to be unique, and employ high-quality materials on a modest scale.
‘For me, the brooch is a personal joy, because I have always thought that Fabergé’s snowflake designs are some of the most imaginative areas of the firm’s production,’ says Culver Smith. ‘The use of rock crystal, which is particularly hard to mount, coupled with the diamond, captures this idea of winter frost so perfectly.’
The acquisition of this brooch, like each piece in this collection, ‘was very considered’, the specialist stresses. ‘We can essentially link every piece to an important moment, either relating to the Imperial family or for Fabergé’s commissions for industrialists of the age. It not only shows us how Fabergé was collected in its own time, but is a model for how we could collect it today.’