Fersman Portfolio, Fabergé Plastron
by Oscar Pihl
(Courtesy Heritage Auctions)
1985 Remade Plastron
(Nicholson, Jewels of the Romanovs,
The story of the Russian crown jewels in our snapshots begins in August 1914 when they were moved from the Imperial Treasury in the Winter Palace, St. Petersburg, to the Kremlin Armoury in Moscow, for safe-keeping during World War I. And there they languished in crates for eight years.
After the 1917 October Revolution, the Romanov jewels became the property of the people and the fledgling Soviet government. The latter, desperate for foreign currency and equipment (such as plows and tractors), in order to rebuild its country after World War I began the sale of the crown jewels, and eventually, large amounts of Russian decorative and fine art objects.
The political turmoil surrounding these Soviet sales from 1918-1938 are discussed in three very recent publications:
Iljine, Nicolas, and Natalya Semyonova, Selling Russia’s Treasures: The Story of the Sale of Russian National Art Treasures Confiscated from the Tsarist Royal Family, the Church, Private Individuals and Museums in the USSR in 1918-1937 (Moscow: Trefoil Press, 2000). Russian and German editions.
Bayer, Waltraud, ed. Verkaufte Kultur: Die Sowjetischen Kunst- und Antiquitätenexporte, 1919-1938 (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2001). In German.
Odom, Anne and Wendy R. Salmond, eds. Treasures into Tractors: The Selling of Russia’s Cultural Heritage, 1918-1938 (Washington, DC: Hillwood Estate, Museums & Gardens, 2009).
Agathon Fabergé, Nuptial Crown and Other Russian Crown Jewels, 1923
(Fabergé, Proler, and Skurlov, The Fabergé Imperial Easter Eggs, 1997, 66)
Russian Crown Jewels Newsreel
(Courtesy British Pathe)
1925-26 The four-part Fersman catalog, Russia’s Treasure of Diamonds and Precious Stones, begun in 1922 as a scholarly endeavor, was published as a promotional catalog to attract rich ‘foreign purchasers’.
The New York Times (February 26, 1926, 2) announced the publication of the set:
All of the glories of the Romanoff crown jewels, compromising 496 (correct number is 406) separate objects, have been recorded in four elaborate volumes published today by the jewel department of the Soviet Government … issued in four languages, Russian, English, French and German under the editorship of Professor A. E. Fersman, an eminent Russian gemologist, and S.M. Troynitsky (Director of the Hermitage Museum) of Leningrad. Government authorities say the purpose of these books is
A. To repudiate the rumors abroad that the crown jewels have been sold or broken up,
B. To make a contribution to the Science and History of Mineralogy,
C. To leave for future generations of Russians an accurate and authentic description of the gems which the Government expects soon to convert into cash, and
D. To acquaint intending foreign purchasers with the details of the collection, which is described as the greatest aggregation of regal jewels in all history.
Subsequent articles in The New York Times describe bids by an American-British group (Rudolph Oblatt and Adolph Pressels of New York, and Norman Weisz and Solomon Himmelblau of London), and a French group led by M. Frankiano. More interesting, however, is the eye-witness account of the wheeling and dealing which took place in Moscow between Norman C. Weisz and Frankiano as the bidders vs. the Bolsheviks, the sellers. William Reswick, chief of the Moscow Bureau of the Associated Press and a resident of Moscow from 1922-1934 in his recollections, I Dreamt Revolution (Chicago, Henry Regnery Co., 1952), writes about the clandestine and sometimes dangerous negotiations surrounding the Soviet sales. As a trained lawyer who immigrated to America before the Revolution, he advised Weisz and Americans without Communist involvement on business ventures. Through his contacts he understood the workings of the Politburo, the Cheka secret police, and the political climate under the Soviet regime. By the time the dispatches from the Associated Press were published in The New York Times, the terms of the negotiations had once again changed, and therefore, modern researchers do not yet have a clear picture of the events as they occurred. It is known one specific parcel from the numerous sales consisting of diadems and the last Czarina’s [wedding] crown, and 25,300 carats of diamonds, 1700 carats of emeralds, 6000 carats of precious stones as well as many, many semi-precious stones — sold for their intrinsic value, not at the antiquarian or historic value. The parcel was bought for £50,000 by Norman Weisz of London and Paris, and a syndicate.
Norman Weisz (d. 1963), a Hungarian-born jewelry merchant trading in London, is described as a ‘colorful character’. The Australian press (Poverty Bay Herald, Gisborne, New Zealand, October 19, 1920, 5) writing about him mentions his affluent wealth and lifestyle, a turf fraud case in the British court system, and calls him a ‘fashionable conspirator’. The obituary of Weisz in the Singapore Strait Times (Reuters News, July 19, 1963) states he ‘bought the Czarist crown jewels for £1 million … he came with 3s 6d in his pocket’, got a job, served in World War I, went to Russia with a letter of credit, and bought the court treasures.
In a review of The Times (London) his name appears again and again in connection with legal issues. By 1920, he had served a prison sentence of 15 months for a racehorse fraud. His sins – he entered a race for a horse which did not exist, and he disguised a previously successful race horse by painting it in a different color, then entering it under a false name in a novice race and netting at least £3000. His defense cost £10,000. From 1925-27, he was involved in buying Russian crown jewels and consigned 124 lots from the Soviet purchase to a Christie’s auction which realized £80,561. The proceeds went toward the dissolution of a partnership. Weisz may have been involved with Michel Norman of the Paris-based Australian Pearl Company in buying the Diamond Trellis Egg (made by Fabergé in 1892) from the Antikvariat (Trade Department of the Soviet government). In 1929, he was entangled as an unwilling party to a London court case brought by the Russian émigré, Princess Olga Paley. She argued Weisz was buying property amounting to $240,000 offered by people who did not own it, i.e., the Soviet government. Weisz won the case.
To paint the mood in London, we cite an article published in The Evening Post, March 16, 1927, 11:
At this Christie’s London sale, Magnificent Jewellery … Part of the Russian State Jewels, The Nuptial Crown (lot 62) with a simple four line description sold for £6,100 to Founés (possibly antiques dealer Isaac Founés, one of the most important dealers in French furniture of his time). The bidding started at £5,000.
The nuptial crown worn by Tsarina Alexandra when she married Tsar Nicholas II on November 26, 1894, is perhaps the most easily recognized object from the Russian crown jewels sold in the West.
Nuptial Crown, Fersman Portfolio, ca. 1922
(Courtesy Heritage Auction Galleries)
1894 Wedding of Nicholas II and
(Courtesy The Royal Collection)
Tsesarevich Alexander married the Danish Princess Dagmar in 1866 as shown in a drawing by Mihály Zichy. Grand Duchess Maria, daughter of Tsar Alexander II, married His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh, the second son of Queen Victoria in 1874. The Queen commissioned Nicholas Chevalier to sketch and paint the wedding in the Winterpalace, St. Petersburg, Russia.
In 1894, Alexandra Feodorovna wore the crown for her wedding to Tsar Nicholas II, shown in a painting by Lauritz Tuxen. The painting was commissioned by Queen Victoria who was Alexandra’s grandmother. After the Tsarina, the crown was worn in 1902 by Grand Duchess Elena Vladimirovna at her wedding to Prince Nicholas of Greece, and in 1908, for the very last time, by Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna (the younger) at her wedding to Prince Wilhelm of Sweden and Norway. (Images Courtesy State Hermitage Museum, The Royal Collection of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, and Alexander Palace Forum)
In less glamorous times the journey of the nuptial crown from the 1927 London auction to the 1966 New York auction must surely involve both jewelers and owners – as yet unknown – on both sides of the Atlantic ocean. In the 1930’s the crown was seen by Prince Christopher of Greece and Denmark at Cartier in New York, and then it was sold from the estate of Helen de Kay of New York in 1966. Its journey after this time is well documented – Harry Levinson, A La Vieille Russie on behalf of Marjorie Merriweather Post, and from July 5, 1977, on public view at the Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens in Washington (DC).
Helen de Kay (incorrectly cited as deKay), the widow of Sidney Gilder de Kay, vice president, director and general legal counsel of Olin Industries, manufacturers of rifles, shotguns, ammunition, skeet equipment, survived her husband by seventeen years. She was a collector of many interests – jewels, paintings, valuable Chinese jade, coral, carvings and furniture for her two residences in New York City and Greenwich (CT). Her small Fabergé collection of seven pieces was part of a four-day estate sale at Parke-Bernet in early December 1966. The December 7th jewelry sale which included the nuptial crown and a golden chalice realized $1,115,585. Both objects are now in the Marjorie Merriweather Post Collection, Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens, Washington (DC). Her articulated female figure of a bowenite magot (female goddess of happiness and good fortune) by Fabergé sold for $35,000 on December 9, 1966. Current whereabouts unknown.
The New York Times (December 8, 1966) reviewing the sale states, ‘A flurry of bids brought the price of the bejeweled crown from $15,000 to about $50,000 and then Harry Levinson and A La Vieille Russie of New York fought it out. Mr. Levinson won’.
Mr. Harry Levinson, of Levinson’s Jewels, Chicago, Illinois
(Photo Corbis Images)
The underbidder, Mr. Alexander Schaffer, was bidding for Mrs. Post and after the sale at Mrs. Post’s request, he negotiated a price with Levinson to buy the crown for her collection. (Odom and Salmond, Treasures into Tractors, 2009, 293, end note 42)
One final stop on our journey was to find out how many of the 350 printed copies of the Fersman catalogs still exist. Ten English language editions are in American libraries, and one each in Berlin and Munich. Two copies in French with the title, Les Joyaux du Trésor de Russie, are in a British private collection and a Paris library. The authors are not aware of any German editions. Auction records reveal four English copies have come under the hammer:
1987 Sotheby’s New York sold a copy to Theodore Horowitz for $2640, including the buyer’s premium. It was sold 10 years later by Christie’s Geneva for $21,304, and is now in the Liddicoat Gemological Library, Gemological Institute of America, Carlsbad (CA).
2000-01 Sotheby’s London sold two copies for $21,084 and $45, 992, inclusive of the buyers’ premiums.
2007 A copy with an Ex Libris Umberto, Prince of Piedmont, later King Umberto II of Italy sold at Christie’s London for $141,984.
Two French editions have sold at Christie’s – in 2008 in Geneva a copy signed by Alexander E. Fersman realized $71,861, and in London in 2010 a copy realized $64,230.
On October 14-15, 2010, an English edition with an Ex Libris of the Dallas jeweler, Arthur A. Everts Co., will be auctioned by Heritage Auctions, Beverly Hills, (CA).
Kudos: Our thanks to Dr. Smylie of Heritage Auction Galleries, Marie Betteley, Geoffrey Munn of Wartski, and our librarian friends who always turn up treasures in books – Lois White (Getty Research Library), Rose Tozer (Liddicoat Library, Gemological Institute of America), Pam Payne (Huntsville Public Library), and Anne Coleman (Salmon Library, University of Alabama in Huntsville).
Highlights from the sale included a Fabergé silver and bowenite Japonisme-inspired table lamp with a Nobel family provenance (achieved £193,250 with an estimate £80,000 – 120,000), and a Fabergé hardstone model of a turkey (£193,250, est. of £60,000 – 80,000). A Fabergé bonbonnière with a scratched inventory number 22267, similar to Wigström sketches, realized £115,250 (est. £20,000 – 30,000). According to Christie’s, the sale results for the Fabergé items were 97% by value and 95% sold by lot, and this maintained Christie’s 53% of the total Fabergé market share. (Information courtesy of Helen Culver Smith, Christie’s)
(Muntian, Fabergé: Juwelier
van de Romanovs, 2005, 119)
The turkey in Christie’s June sale (lot 177) was probably, despite Henrik Wigström’s initials, carved by A. K. Denissov-Uralski of the celebrated lapidary workshop from Ekatarinenburg. A very similar turkey with an identical purpurine comb and wattles, still in its original fitted case stamped with this hardstone carver’s name and his St. Petersburg address at Morskaya 27, is in the State Art Gallery in Perm, Russia. This does not preclude the attribution to Fabergé. It was not an uncommon practice during that era to acquire a hardstone animal or other object, and to sell it under one’s own name. Both Cartier and Fabergé were known to have done it. In this case, Wigström would have replaced the original bronze legs of the bird with gold feet made in his own workshop. There is one case on record where the same Ekatarinenburg lapidary sold an animal figure without feet.
Born in 1864, Alexei Kuzmich Denissov (he added Uralski to his name to reflect the region from which he came) received his diploma of master in sculpture from the Ekatarinenburg guild of sculptors in 1884 and exhibited his works in Scandinavia, Paris, Reims (where he obtained a Gold Medal in 1903), and in St. Louis (where he was awarded a Silver Medal in 1904). He established himself in St. Petersburg first at Moika Street 42 and became Fabergé’s neighbor on Bolshaya Morskaya Street between 1910 and 1913.
In 1911/12 the jeweler Cartier acquired an impressive total of 62 animal figures from Denissov-Uralski. The acquisitions included an obsidian owl which is illustrated as a pencil drawing in the margin of the French firm’s acquisition ledgers. It is virtually identical to an owl in the Lillian Thomas Pratt Collection at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The latter, however, despite its original fitted case stamped Fabergé, was apparently also an acquisition from Denissov-Uralski. It is known from contemporary sources that Fabergé’s in-house stone-carving workshop, founded in 1908, was swamped with orders, and was barely able to keep up with the incoming commissions. What may have been more logical than to turn to his celebrated neighbor for help?
The catalog of the Russian Collection at the Virginia Museum to be published in July 2011, to coincide with the opening of the Fabergé Revealed exhibition, will discuss in greater detail the complex problem of (re-?) attributions of Russian hardstone animal figures. Hopefully, a seminar planned to be held in Richmond, Virginia, in conjunction with the exhibition will allow a further discussion of this subject.
November 11, 2010 Auktionshaus Dr. Fischer, Heilbronn, Germany
Russian Art, Fabergé and Icons includes a Fabergé glass and silver inkwell stand.
November 29, 2010 Christie’s, London
November 2010 Olivier Coutau-Begarie, Paris
December 1, 2010 Sotheby’s, London
Russian Works of Art, Fabergé & Icons
A La Vieille Russie à Paris: Fabergé et la Russie impériale au carrefour des cultures
Box with Portrait of Catherine the Great and Violet by Fabergé
(Courtesy A La Vieille Russie)
The New York antique shop A La Vieille Russie will be showcasing its Paris history with an exhibition of Fabergé objects and a special presentation of their guest book from the period. The livre d’or includes well-known visitors – Serge Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes, the Russian art critic and historian Alexander Benois, Grand Duchesses Olga and Xenia Alexandrovna, the painter Salvador Dali and movie star Marlene Dietrich, all émigrés who visited or lived in Paris ca. 90 years ago. A catalog of highlights will be published.
September 18 – October 10, 2010 Russian Ambassador’s Residence, Hôtel d’Estrées, Paris
Arts et Traditions en Russie, de Pierre le Grand à Nicolas II
Exhibition is part of a Russia in France celebration year. Selected Fabergé items from this exhibition will be in a November auction at Olivier Coutau-Begarie. Contact.
November 23 – December 3, 2010 Wartski London
The Last Flowering of Court Art
Typical Russian Pilgrim
Siberian Hardstones Bogomoletz
A Fabergé hardstone figure of a bogomoletz, a religious pilgrim of Imperial Russia who travelled to his place of destination by begging on the way, has rarely been seen in public. In 1970, this figure fetched $27,000 at a Parke-Bernet New York auction. Twenty-eight years later, the same figure realized $409,500, including the buyer’s premium at Christie’s New York. This Fall during the traditional Russian Week auctions in London Fabergé enthusiasts will have an opportunity to view this figure and other Fabergé objects from a private Russian collection.
Spring 2011 A brief announcement in the Swiss Basler Zeitung (June 13, 2010) suggests a possible exhibition of “The Link of Times” Collection (the former Forbes Magazine Collection and now owned by Viktor Vekselberg) may be in the planning stage.
The Dowager Empress and Grand Duke Nicholas Nicholaievich, Jr.,
Departing Yalta Onboard the HMS Marlborough on 8 April, 1919.
(Courtesy Royal Russia)
Fabergé Bowl Presented to Allan Bowe in 1895 Honoring His Service to the Firm
(Bowl Photograph Courtesy Forbes Magazine Collection)
The author is a great grand-daughter of Henry Allan Talbot Bowe, business partner of Carl Fabergé from 1887 to 1906. Using family diaries from Bowe’s daughter Essie and standard Fabergé books, Ms. Bonus has written her family’s history. During Bowe’s tenure with the House of Fabergé the Moscow and Kiev branches were opened. His brother Arthur opened and managed the London branch beginning in 1903.
A Royal Farm in Miniature
Jewels of the Romanovs: Family & Court
- Symbolism of the Pelican Egg
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond Bequest of Lillian Thomas Pratt.
(Photo by Katherine Wetzel Virginia Museum of Fine Arts)
- Photo Identification
Fabergé Shop in St. Petersburg
- Update on Queen Victoria Jubilee Brooch (Fabergé Research Newsletter, Summer 2010) The Times (London), October 18, 1897, 8A, in the article, The Queen’s Jubilee Presents and Addresses, mentions among the gifts from “… the family of Princess Alice, including the Emperor and Empress of Russia … a brooch of diamonds and of beautiful cabochon sapphires”.
- Is anyone aware of a set of flatware in the King’s pattern marked Fabergé?
- The newsletter editors are frequently asked about Fabergé cigarette cases. Have any studies been done on this topic other than the 1998 publication on the Traina Collection of cigarette cases?
- A reader is interested in identifying the monogram on the cigarette case shown below.
Silver Art Nouveau Case
- Searching for a series of miniature portraits of Tsar Alexander III, probably rectangular or square, possibly similar to the miniatures of the 1890 Danish Palaces Egg. The miniatures with the Danish palaces and yachts, as well as other Russian jewels, can be seen in a 1933 newsreel.
(Courtesy British Pathe)