Jewelled Snuff-Boxes with the Sovereign's Portrait
By Ulla Tillander-Godenhielm
A jewelled object bearing a miniature portrait of a sovereign was the epitome of a monarchical gift, and as such, had a long tradition in Western civilisation. The earliest presentation objects with rulers' images go back to the glyptic arts of the ancient world. Miniature portraits of rulers carved in hardstone were already widespread in the Hellenistic world. Portrait intaglios and cameos were set into finger rings or pendants and were intended as gifts of favour.
In Russia, from the reign of Peter the Great onwards, sovereigns presented gifts embellished with their image. These were essentially the same as those awarded by monarchs elsewhere in Europe. In Russia the practice of awarding jewelled snuff-boxes came into its own during the reigns of the Empresses Elizabeth and Catherine the Great, when snuff taking developed into an elaborate social ritual-l'art de priser-and gave rise to the new art form of luxurious snuff-boxes, the demand for which became tremendous. In Russia, this custom endured long after the fashion for snuff taking had passed.
A jewelled presentation snuff-box (tabakerka, from the French tabatière) was the most frequently awarded portrait gift during the reign of Nicholas II and was an Imperial award bestowed upon both deserving Russian nationals as well as on foreign dignitaries.
Nicholas II presented a total of fifty-four snuff-boxes with his miniature portrait, twenty of these to prominent Russians and thirty-four to foreign dignitaries. To this number could be added a handful of portrait snuff-boxes which Nicholas awarded when still heir to the throne. Four of these, all made by the jeweller Koechli, were presented on his grand tour in 1891, the purpose of which was to open the construction of the Far East segment of the Trans-Siberian Railway in Vladivostok. One of these boxes has survived.
Researching the Provenance of Imperial Gifts
Researching the provenance of Imperial presentation gifts is a fascinating task. For the understanding of these objects, it is necessary to realise that they were not gifts in the traditional sense of the word. They were rewards presented in the interest of the empire, not for personal reasons or out of generosity.
The intent of the Emperor's awards to Russian nationals was to create bonds of loyalty between the ruler and those who served in his name, as well as to promote efficiency and zeal in the carrying out of official duties. The awards were compensation for service, both political and administrative, rendered to the state and thus indirectly to the Emperor. Presented in his august name and under his control, the process of rewarding was in itself an important instrument of ruling. The gifts of jewelled boxes gave the sovereign an opportunity to remunerate individuals for loyal service to the state.
Jewelled snuff-boxes were awarded to foreigners either for purely diplomatic reasons or for reasons related to a special occasion linked to the Imperial family. Such reasons were, for example, state visits abroad and celebrations of various kinds at the royal courts of Europe. A few portrait boxes were presented as farewell gifts to resigning foreign ambassadors. For these gifts, it is worth paying attention to the intrinsic value of the snuff-box: the more precious a snuff-box, the more consequential were Russia's political relations to the recipient's realm. An example of this is the fine snuff-box set with six costly brilliant cut diamonds (the present lot) conferred on the Turkish ambassador Turkhan Pasha.
Jewelled portrait snuff-boxes were only bestowed on highly ranked individuals. If serving in the military, the recipient had the rank of general; if he pursued his career in the civil service, he held an important post in government; finally, if he served at court, he had a primary court rank.
A further important detail worth noticing is the miniature portrait of the Emperor. The depictions of Nicholas II painted by the court miniaturists were based on photographs or paintings and showed the Emperor at various ages in different regimental uniforms of which he was the chief: the Chevalier Guards, the Preobrazhenskii Regiment, His Majesty's Hussars, the Horse Guards, the Fourth Imperial Family Rifles, and His Majesty's Lancer Guards. In the case of a military recipient, whenever possible, the Emperor is depicted wearing the uniform of the regiment to which the individual in question belonged.
The Imperial Russian court was renowned for presenting lavish gifts to Russian and foreign dignitaries, a tradition that flourished especially during the reign of Emperor Nicholas II. The responsibility of purchasing and allocating these gifts, under the strict supervision of the Emperor, was given to the Imperial Cabinet, which maintained detailed ledgers. These ledgers contain the description of each item, its cost, the name of the Court supplier and the name of the recipient.
The firm of Fabergé was awarded the title of Court Jeweller in 1884 and became one of the main suppliers to the Imperial Cabinet alongside other prominent jewellery firms, such as Bolin and Koechli. Imperial presentation snuff-boxes were purchased by the Imperial Cabinet unfinished. The diamond cartouche on the cover was left vacant and could be mounted with either the diamond cypher or a miniature portrait of the Emperor.
During the reign of Nicholas II, 424 boxes were supplied in total, costing anywhere between 400 and 4,100 roubles.
Only fifty-four presentation snuff-boxes set with a portrait miniature of Nicholas II were ever presented by the Emperor. Of these, only nineteen were executed by Fabergé, making these boxes even rarer than the fifty known Fabergé Imperial eggs.
The present enamelled gold snuff-box by Fabergé was originally entered into the Imperial Cabinet's ledgers under reference number 337 on 18 June 1909 as costing 2,500 roubles.
Fitted first with a diamond cypher on the cover, it was later embellished with a portrait miniature of Emperor Nicholas II in the uniform of the Preobrazhenskii Regiment (pattern 1907). The portrait miniature is recorded in the Imperial Cabinet's ledgers under reference number 330 as being commissioned from Vasilii Zuev on 13 August 1911 for 200 roubles.
The snuff-box was given to the jeweller, Carl Blank, on 23 November 1911 to be set with the finely painted miniature. The snuff-box was then entered in the ledgers under reference number 63, with an increased cost of 2,550 roubles.
On 12 December 1913, the snuff-box was presented to Turkhan Pasha, the Turkish Ambassador to the Russian Court.
The significance of this Fabergé presentation snuff-box is emphasised by the fact that Turkhan Pasha was one of only thirty-four foreign dignitaries to receive a snuff-box with the Emperor's portrait during the reign of Nicholas II (U. Tillander-Godenhielm, The Russian Imperial Award System 1894-1917, Helsinki, 2005, p. 171 and p. 174).
The gift of a gold snuff-box with the sovereign's portrait always commemorated a special event in a foreign dignitary's career, particularly milestones in their diplomatic service to the Russian court. Turkhan Pasha (1846-1927) was born in Tirhala, Turkey in 1846 and was educated in Istanbul. He was a career diplomat and politician, who distinguished himself in historical accounts; his contemporaries noted that Turkhan Pasha established himself as 'a favourite everywhere in the Russian capital, as a charming talker and a professional peacemaker, who wished well to everybody' (The Literary Digest, 17 May 1919, p. 49). Turkhan Pasha trained in the translation office at the Babiali, an Ottoman institution that included the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and was appointed the Charge d'Affaires at the Turkish Embassy in St Petersburg in 1873. After postings in Berlin, Vienna, Madrid and Rome, Turkhan Pasha returned to St Petersburg as Turkish Ambassador between 1908 and 1913. He then went on to serve as the Prime Minister of Albania in 1914 and 1918-1920.
The Cost of Important Imperial Presentation Snuff-Boxes
The cost of the snuff-box would have been in the Imperial Cabinet's highest price bracket, which was reserved for snuff-boxes with a blank central cartouche, in which a portrait miniature or diamond cypher could be set (U. Tillander-Godenhielm, op. cit., p. 166). The value of the snuff-box correlated directly to the recipient's rank, or if rewarded to a foreign dignitary, to the importance of the occasion and reason for presentation. This Imperial presentation snuff-box by Fabergé, costing 2,550 roubles, would have been amongst the most expensive supplied to the Imperial Cabinet. To put this price in context, the average cost per year of a seven room flat in St Petersburg on the fashionable Bolshaia Morskaia between 1894-1914 would have been 2,000 roubles (U. Tillander-Godenhielm, op. cit., p. 491). For the sake of comparison, a similar jewelled two-colour gold and orange guilloché enamelled Fabergé Imperial presentation snuff-box that sold Christie's, New York, 2001, lot 136 for $391,000 was originally purchased in 1899 by the Imperial Cabinet and presented to Count zu Eulenburg at a cost of 1,335 roubles.
Revival of the Louis XVI Style and Henrik Wigström's Designs
This presentation snuff-box embodies the artistic collaboration that distinguished Fabergé's most important works for the Imperial Cabinet. The rectangular form with cut corners, use of three-colour gold, sophisticated guilloché and rich royal blue enamelling of the present box exemplify Fabergé's revival of the Louis XVI style and reflect the overwhelming influence of the eighteenth century French court on the Russian Imperial tradition of presenting gold snuff-boxes (U. Tillander-Godenhielm, op. cit., p. 176). As a young craftsman for Fabergé, Henrik Wigström studied the techniques of the finest French and Russian snuff-box craftsmen working for the Russian court. As can be seen in the enamelling and design of the present Imperial snuff-box, Wigström's commissions were both inspired and informed by works in the Hermitage by Pauzié, Scharff and Bouddé.
Fabergé's revival of the guilloché enamelling technique, as exemplified in Wigström's designs, allowed the jeweller to cater directly to the historicising taste of Fabergé's aristocratic clients. As this snuff-box illustrates, the use of Louis XVI shapes and ornament allowed Wigström to showcase his masterful enamelling while making direct reference to the objects of vertu in the Hermitage from the reigns of Elizabeth Petrovna and Catherine the Great. The result was a distinctively Russian interpretation of the Louis XVI style which can be seen throughout Henrik Wigström's oeuvre.
The fitting of Wigström's snuff-box with a portrait by Zuev also reflects the influence of eighteenth century French boîte-à-miniatures on Fabergé's designs for snuff-boxes, objects of vertu and Imperial eggs. Fabergé's adornment of important objects with portrait miniatures depicting the Imperial family led to the frequent collaboration of Fabergé's leading workmaster with Vasilii Zuev during the period. This association between Zuev and Fabergé produced what are arguably the firm's most important commissions for Nicholas II.
The miniaturist Vasilii Zuev was born in Stavropol in 1870. He graduated from St Petersburg's Baron Stieglitz Central School of Applied Arts in 1895 and studied at the Imperial Academy of Arts for a year. He was a drawing master at the Imperial Alexandrovskii Lyceum and from 1904 worked for the Office of His Imperial Majesty painting miniatures on ivory. Between 1908 and 1917, Zuev replaced Johannes Zehngraf as the chief miniature painter for the Imperial court, producing miniature portraits of members of the Imperial family in enamel and on ivory. Zuev's precise technique and use of photographic resources distinguished his portraits as uniquely lifelike. Zuev was recruited to work for the firm of Fabergé and painted miniatures for a number of Imperial presentation snuff-boxes and Imperial eggs.
For further examples of Fabergé Imperial presentation snuff-boxes set with the portrait of Emperor Nicholas II, see Christie's, New York, 20 October 1999, lot 96; Christie's, New York, 20 April 2001, lot 136; Christie's, New York, 19 April 2002, lot 128; Christie's, New York, 21 October 2003, lot 154.
We are thankful to Valentin Skurlov for his assistance in researching the Imperial Cabinet ledgers related to the present Fabergé Imperial presentation snuff-box.
We are thankful for Ulla Tillander-Godenhielm for her assistance in researching the history of the present Fabergé Imperial presentation snuff-box.
We are thankful to Gerard Gorokhoff for his assistance in identifying the uniform depicted in the portrait miniature.