Young ladies who were appointed as maids of honor (freilini) to the Empress came from the most illustrious families of the Russian Empire. Their fathers served with distinction in either the civil service, the military, or at court. The nomination was thus an honor for her father and her family at large, as much as it was for the young lady. (U. Tillander-Godenhielm, The Russian Imperial Award System 1894-1917, Helsinki, 2005, p. 35).
Prior to being appointed as a maid of honor, a young lady's character, and her family and social circle, were carefully scrutinized. The position afforded a young lady many privileges, the foremost of which was access to the Imperial court. Such access allowed her to form an influential network, which could be beneficial to her future.
There were two categories of maids of honor: maids of honor of the suite and maids of honor "of the city." The former, who were required to live at the palace, constituted a much smaller group (from one to five during this period), and the latter a much larger group (approximately 250 in 1916). (U. Tillander-Godenhielm, op cit, pp. 35-37).
Maid of honor cyphers consisted of the reigning Empress's initials surmounted by the Imperial crown. When a new empress ascended to the throne, or upon the death of a dowager empress, the design was changed. The present badge is in the form of the Cyrillic initials MA, which stand for Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna (1847-1928) and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna (1872-1918), dating the badge to the reign of Emperor Nicholas II (1894-1917). The placement of the initial of the Dowager Empress on the left signified her higher rank within the court hierarchy.
Cyphers were worn on the young lady's left shoulder, suspended from the ribbon of the Order of St. Andrew, whenever court dress was prescribed. While the cost of each cypher was between 500 and 900 rubles, they were provided free of charge to the recipients. During the reign of Nicholas II, the Court jeweler Karl Hahn supplied maid of honor cyphers to the Cabinet of His Imperial Majesty.
The present maid of honor cypher, numbered 201, is recorded in an invoice from Hahn to the Cabinet of His Imperial Majesty, dated January 9, 1904, as costing 700 roubles. It was later entered into the Cabinet ledgers as a part of a "group of maid of honor cyphers" under the number 218. On October 2, 1904, the cypher was presented to Countess Olga Alexandrovna Nieroth (b. 1876). Olga was the daughter of Colonel Count Alexander Evstafievich Nieroth (1839-1882) and Countess Maria Karlovna, née Countess Schulenburg (1851-1908). The Counts Nieroth had a long and distinguished record of military and civil service to the Russian empire.
Count Alexander von Benckendorff (1849-1917) was a Russian diplomat, who served as Ambassador to Denmark and the United Kingdom. He was appointed Ambassador Extraordinaire to the Court of St. James's in 1903. Countess Natalie Louise von Benckendorff (1886-1968) was the daughter of Alexander von Benckendorff. She married Sir Jaspar Nicholas Ridley, TD, OBE, KCB, on April 28, 1911 in London.
A comparable maid of honor cypher to the present lot was sold at Christie's, New York, April 18, 2008, lot 300.
For a further discussion of the subject of maids of honor and ladies of the Russian Imperial court, see U. Tillander-Godenhielm, op cit, pp. 31-45.
We are grateful to Ulla Tillander-Godenhielm for her assistance with the present lot.
We are thankful to Valentin Skurlov for researching the present lot.