‘English nobility, Russian aristocrats… they all wanted to own these objects’: the Harry Woolf Collection of Fabergé masterpieces

The breathtaking range of Harry Woolf's collection of Fabergé pieces, from animal figures and photograph frames to perfume bottles and brooches, makes it a staple of exhibitions worldwide — and perhaps the finest of its kind ever to come to Christie’s

The special relationship between Harry Woolf and Fabergé dates back to the 1970s. Woolf, then Chairman of the successful London-based pharmacy chain, Underwoods, was visiting his newly retired father and found him whiling away his days in front of some pretty average television shows.

‘I determined there and then to find a hobby,’ said Woolf, ‘so that my mind would be more satisfactorily occupied at a similar age’. He duly met a string of London dealers, who worked in spheres as diverse as early clocks and contemporary art. None sparked much interest. Then, one night, a guest at a dinner party at his house in Hampstead posed the fateful question: ‘Why not Fabergé?’

Harry was immediately attracted. In part because the jewellery house — like his paternal grandparents — had been Russian; and in part because of the stunning workmanship on an object he was shown.

He soon started researching Fabergé and consulting experts — before embarking on a passionate collecting mission that lasted the best part of 50 years. Woolf passed away at the end of 2019 and, just five days beforehand, was still buying pieces.

An important jewelled gold and platinum mosaic brooch, by Fabergé, circa 1913. 1⅝ in (4.3 cm) long. Sold for £350,000 on 29 November 2021 at Christie’s in London

On 29 November, a selection of his Fabergé works is being offered in A Selection of Fabergé Masterpieces from the Harry Woolf Collection at Christie’s in London.

Woolf was a generous lender to Fabergé exhibitions around the world — the quality of his pieces ensuring that that generosity was frequently called upon. The range in the collection is breathtaking, including as it does examples of all the renowned fields of Fabergé craftsmanship: from animal figures and photograph frames to perfume bottles, flower studies and brooches.

It is a collection that surpasses all the prestigious examples previously sold at Christie’s: the Kazan (1997) and di Portanova (2000) collections, to name but two. With specific regard to the animal figures, only the British Royal Collection can be considered comparable.

The House of Fabergé was issued a royal warrant by Emperor Alexander III in the mid-1880s, and its objects were soon must-haves among Europe’s elite, routinely serving as diplomatic gifts. One of the highlights of the Woolf collection is a standing rabbit (below), carved in agate and set with rose-cut diamond eyes. Its first owner was Emily Yznaga del Valle, a society belle in Edwardian England and sister of the Duchess of Manchester.

A jewelled agate model of a rabbit, by Fabergé, circa 1900. 1⅜ in (3.5 cm) high. Sold for £106,250 on 29 November 2021 at Christie’s in London

Other highlights include an intricate, trompe l'oeil study of a wild strawberry plant in a vase of water; and a stunning mosaic brooch conceived by Alma Pihl, one of Fabergé’s two female designers. (Works by the other, Anna Ringe, a silver specialist, feature in the sale too.)

There’s also an eye-catchingly enamelled, gem-set gold bonbonnière (sweet box) in the form of a doge’s hat.

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Woolf, who sold Underwoods to Boots in 1988, was never one to follow trends. Everyone in the Fabergé market — dealers and auction house specialists alike — knew better than to steer him towards particular works. He preferred to rely almost solely on his instinct, taste and finely attuned eye. The end result was one of the most iconic Fabergé collections in private hands.

More than 10 pieces from the Woolf collection are also included in the exhibition, Fabergé in London: From Romance to Revolution, opening at the V&A on November 20. These do not form part of the Christie’s sale

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