Fabergé treasures from the Russian imperial family
The British outpost of the celebrated jeweller was a magnet for a royal clientele that included Edward VII and the émigré grandson of Tsar Nicholas I. Now, after decades hidden away, a collection of 18 prized pieces will be offered in London
When Carl Fabergé was awarded a gold medal and the Légion d’honneur for the 14 jewel-encrusted eggs he presented at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, he knew he had a large customer base waiting for him outside Russia.
Despite France being his country’s closest ally, however, he decided to expand the business he had inherited from his father to London.
Carl’s talent as a goldsmith was matched by his business acumen: the British capital was not only the financial capital of the world, but also the home of avid Fabergé collectors King Edward VII (r. 1901-10) and Queen Alexandra.
The first Fabergé boutique outside Russia opened in London in 1903. Initially operating from the Berners Hotel, it quickly moved to Oxford Street, then Dover Street — and by 1911 Carl had leased a large shop at 173 New Bond Street. Ionic columns flanked a dark, veiled door. Above hung a gold double-headed eagle — the symbol of imperial Russia.
Inside, store manager Henry Bainbridge invited European monarchs, Indian maharajas, English aristocrats and American heiresses to acquire the ultimate status symbols — exquisite ornaments, objects and jewels shipped straight from the Fabergé workshops in St. Petersburg and marked with a London stamp.
Surviving ledgers outline the purchases, arguably the most impressive of which stems from Bainbridge having convinced Edward VII to commission bejewelled hardstone miniatures of the animals he kept at his beloved Sandringham estate.
The King was so charmed by the tiny model of his fox terrier Caesar that he eventually ordered more than 100 sculptures, among them turkeys, pigeons and sheep — even his pet bear.
Two other names appear in Bainbridge’s ledgers with notable frequency: Grand Duke Michael Mikhailovich (1861-1929) and his wife Sophie of Merenberg, Countess de Torby (1868-1927).
The Grand Duke was the grandson of Tsar Nicholas I and had been born in the Peterhof Palace in St. Petersburg. He was stripped of his titles, however, and banished from Russia after eloping to Sanremo, Italy, with his bride. Despite being the granddaughter of the poet Alexander Pushkin, she was deemed unworthy of the Grand Duke.
The exiled couple eventually settled in London, renting Kenwood House on Hampstead Heath. They were close friends of the King and Queen, regularly visiting them at Sandringham.
‘Fabergé was a kind of social currency for Edwardian high society’ — Christie’s specialist Margo Oganesian
‘They shared the royals’ passion for Fabergé and amassed their own huge collection,’ explains Margo Oganesian, a specialist in Christie’s Russian art department.
‘As well as being frequent buyers, the Grand Duke and Countess also received many objects as gifts; Fabergé was a kind of social currency for Edwardian high society.’
Take their beautiful enamel and carnelian sealing wax case (below), whose incised inventory number Oganesian traced to an invoice for 150 roubles sent to the Russian Empress Maria Feodorovna, the wife of Tsar Alexander III (r. 1881-94). ‘It was possibly a gift from the Empress to members of her family,’ says the specialist.
Similarly, two impressive gold, enamel and rock crystal candlesticks (below) were commissioned by Leopold de Rothschild in his horse’s racing colours, then most likely given to the couple.
‘Whenever [Leopold] wanted to say “Good morning!”, “I like you!” or “Don’t bother me any more!” he simply slipped a dark blue and yellow Fabergé object into his friend’s pocket,’ Henry Bainbridge once wrote.
Bainbridge also recalled how the Countess de Torby ‘collected Fabergé elephants; that is the most significant thing I can say about her, because it implies a quiet, undisturbed and jolly humour’.
The obsidian elephant and castle pictured below, with diamond-set eyes and a ruby-encrusted turret, was probably inspired by the Order of the Elephant, the highest chivalric order in Denmark, and may also have been a gift from the Russian Empress Maria, who was Danish.
‘It is of brilliant quality,’ says Oganesian, adding that, in 2013, Christie’s sold two almost identical Fabergé elephants from the Duke of Gloucester’s collection for £290,500 each — more than 10 times their low estimate.
As well as other miniature animals, including an agate dachshund and an obsidian crow, the Grand Duke and Countess acquired more practical Fabergé items.
A moonstone-set nephrite bell-push (below) was an ornate way to call servants, while a silver-gilt and enamel frame with a portrait of Tsar Nicholas I served to remind the couple of their Russian heritage.
The couple also collected Fabergé jewel-set cane handles, scent bottles, brooches and an ashtray modelled as an oak leaf (below).
In 1917, the Russian Revolution brought more than 300 years of Romanov rule to an end. Tsar Nicholas II abdicated. One year later, he and his family were executed by firing squad.
Fabergé’s Russian boutiques and workshops were seized by the Bolsheviks, and Carl fled to Germany. In London, the shop’s remaining stock was sold to the Parisian jeweller Lacloche Frères.
The Grand Duke and Countess also lost their fortune, which was tied up in Russia. They moved to a more modest house overlooking Regent’s Park and relied on the generosity of the British royal family to make ends meet.
The 18 objects coming to Christie’s — a small part of the original collection — passed to their eldest daughter, Lady Zia Wernher, then to her granddaughter, Alexandra Anastasia Hamilton, Duchess of Abercorn, in whose family they have remained until now.
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‘Fabergé collectors initially look for two things,’ says Oganesian. ‘Quality and provenance. These items are easily of museum quality, and, as for provenance, you can’t get better than the direct descendants of the Russian imperial family.
‘On top of that, the group represents all the main “work masters” that Carl employed to oversee his studios, and many of the objects have been loaned to major exhibitions; some even have their original boxes.
‘But what I love most about the collection is that it tells a wonderfully personal story of Fabergé’s special, enduring bond with London — which just happens to be the focus of an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum opening in November this year.’