Jewellery expert Geoffrey Munn recalls the late comedienne’s intelligent, considered approach to buying objects of fancy and antique jewels, while specialist Helen Culver Smith describes some of the highlights from her collection
In late 1985, Joan Rivers travelled to London to play a series of dates at the Pizza on the Park nightclub. During her stay in the city she visited Wartski, the celebrated art and antique dealers established in 1865.
Geoffrey Munn, the British jewellery specialist, Antiques Roadshow expert and author, had joined Wartski as a 19-year-old in 1972. In his book, Wartski — The First One Hundred and Fifty Years, he remarks on the company’s pride in the ‘large contribution’ it has made to ‘scholarship on the work of Carl Fabergé’.
In the book, Munn recalls his first meeting with Joan Rivers, whom he refers to as ‘Mrs Rosenberg’, rather than her more famous comedy alter ego. ‘One had the strongest sense,’ Munn writes, ‘ that the character of Joan Rivers was a sort of comedy genie who could only be enticed to leave the bottle by the lure of the limelights. The lights at Wartski,’ he adds, ‘were simply not bright enough to bring her out, and try as I might to entice her, Joan Rivers stayed firmly in the bottle.’
Munn remembers the comedy star being accompanied by her husband Edgar to the store at 138 Regent Street with its royal warrants and geometric, Sir Denys Ladun-designed front of patinated bronze, gold mosaic and stained glass — a design that echoed the work of Piet Mondrian. He also recalls being struck by her ‘beautiful clothes, beautiful nails and beautiful manners to match’, and her interest in the antique jewellery, and the Fabergé collection in particular.
On 22 June in New York, Christie’s will offer The Private Collection of Joan Rivers at auction. It includes what Helen Culver Smith, Head of the Russian Works of Art department at Christie’s, describes as a collection of Fabergé with a strong exhibition history ‘that represents the superb craftsmanship that made the firm renowned.’
In terms of rarity and importance, the collection is led by a jewelled, gold-mounted Fabergé lily of the valley leaf (above). It relates to a number of lily of the valley studies by Fabergé with imperial provenance, but is apparently one of only two extant examples of a leaf study, the other being in the Geddings Gray Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
‘Fresh bouquets of flowers were of great importance to court culture in late 19th-century St Petersburg, and lilies of the valley were the favourite flowers of Empress Alexandra Feodorovna,’ says Culver Smith. The genius of Fabergé can be seen in the use of pearls set with delicate rose-cut diamonds to form the flower heads, and in the elegant carving of the nephrite leaf, which curls over at its edges. The artistry of the piece is enhanced by the fact that its original design, most likely executed by Carl Fabergé himself, is known.
Joan Rivers possessed what Geoffrey Munn says was ‘an unerring instinct for selecting the best on its own merits rather than by the false barometer of value. She identified the finest Fabergé and jewellery and always reached for the best she could find.’ This included those categories that raised Fabergé above all competitors: the objects of fantasy, the flowers, the animals and the hardstone and enamel boxes.
She also chose masterpieces of Fabergé's jewellery, including an impressive star sapphire. ‘The size and depth of the cabochon star sapphire and the way in which Fabergé’s workmaster, August Holmström, has showcased it in a sympathetic diamond surround are breathtaking,’ remarks Culver Smith. This incredible jewel (Estimate: $70,000-90,000) was once in the collection of the Grand Duchess Maria of Russia (1847 -1909), whose passion for jewels was legendary.
In addition to objets d’art and jewels, the collection contains beautiful and diverse examples of Fabergé frames. Designed with Russian hardstones such as nephrite and rhodonite, as well as rich guilloché enamels, these frames represent the best of Fabergé’s ability to transform everyday objects into works of art.
A further example of Fabergé’s famed guilloché enamelling technique can be seen in the whimsical pill box (below), set with a diamond-glazed plaque enamelled with a question mark. As Culver Smith explains, ‘By researching its number, we have found that this curio was purchased by the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna (1847-1928) on 21 December 1898 for 115 roubles. This piece therefore offers us an insight into the opulence of the imperial court and challenges us to demystify its unique iconography.’
‘Joan's connoisseurship was informed and intuitive,’ says Munn, who is now Managing Director of Wartski as well as its official historian. ‘She was conscious of the importance of provenance.’
When Mrs Rosenberg, rather than Joan Rivers, was at Wartski, he says there were no double entendres or Jewish jokes: ‘Only charm intensified by small promises kept and personal details remembered.’