Fabulous Fabergé, Jeweller to the Czars

A Canadian exclusive at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

Close to 160 000 visitors have seen this exhibit. Don’t miss your chance.

Extended Run – until October 12th, 2014

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is currently presenting an exhibit of exquisite, intricate, and storied items from the renowned House of Fabergé. Running until October 5th, 2014, Fabulous Fabergé, Jeweller to the Czars features the largest Fabergé collection outside of Russia, on loan from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Imperial Pelican Easter Egg

Imperial Pelican Easter Egg, 1897
Carl Fabergé (1846–1920)
Gold, diamonds, enamel, pearls, ivory, watercolor, glass
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Bequest of Lillian Thomas Pratt
Photo Katherine Wetzel © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

At the top of the museum’s grand staircase, the exhibit begins with a large-scale Dorian Fitzgerald painting depicting the 1907 Rose Trellis Fabergé egg. Backlit photos of dozens of the Imperial Easter Eggs line an adjacent wall.     Of the 50 Romanov commissioned Easter eggs, only 43 are now known to have survived. In the last few years one of the “missing” eggs was discovered in the USA. Found at a yard sale and purchased for around $1000, the buyer intended to sell it to be melted down for its gold. However, he had overestimated the amount of gold in the egg and all prospective buyers offered him less than he had paid for it. Opting not to take a loss on the egg, he held on to it for a number of years. Eventually, curiosity led him to research the egg that contained a Vacheron & Constantin watch. This astonishing find turned out to be the Third Imperial Egg, valued at over $20 million.

Imperial Pelican Easter Egg,

Imperial Pelican Easter Egg, 1897
Carl Fabergé (1846-1920)
Gold, diamonds, enamel, pearls, ivory, watercolour, glass, 10.1 x 5.3 cm
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Bequest of Lillian Thomas Pratt
Photo Katherine Wetzel © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

However, Fabergé eggs were not always so highly valued and regarded. In the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, Stalin had many of the eggs sold as part of a “Treasures for Tractors” plan to acquire foreign funds. At that time, few buyers were interested in purchasing these historic pieces, resulting in prices well below $1000.

Carl Fabergé, goldsmith, jeweller and entrepreneur, is known for the astonishing Imperial Easter Eggs that he delivered to the Czar’s family, but these were just a tiny fraction of the pieces that his workshops created. Of the 240 items on display, there are four Imperial Easter Eggs and a wide assortment of jewellery, figurines, and photograph frames.

Good Things Come in Small Packages

The first exhibit room explores the Orthodox tradition of giving Easter eggs. A collection of about twenty mini egg pendants showcase the one of-a-kind pieces that Fabergé promised his clients.

The far wall displays the religious icons that Fabergé delicately decorated with gold leaf, silver, pearls, emeralds, sapphires, rubies, and diamonds.

Imperial Peter the Great Easter Egg

Imperial Peter the Great Easter Egg, 1903
Carl Fabergé (1846–1920)
Surprise: 4.7 x 6.9 cm, gilt bronze, sapphire
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Bequest of Lillian Thomas Pratt
Photo Katherine Wetzel © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

The star attraction in this room is the Imperial Pelican Easter Egg. A gift from Czar Nickolas II to his mother the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, in 1897, this pink gold egg is topped by a pelican perched on a nest holding her three baby birds. The pelican imagery symbolized a mother’s sacrifice for her children. Inside 8 oval frames feature paintings of the orphanages and schools that the Dowager patronized.

History in an Egg Shell

The second room focuses on the great monarchs of Russian history. The 1903 Imperial Peter the Great Easter Egg, gifted to Czarina Alexandra Feodorovna, commemorates the 200th anniversary of the founding of St. Petersburg. Delicate images of Peter the Great, a log cabin that was the first building in St. Petersburg, Nicholas II and the royal family’s Winter Palace adorn the egg. The egg was designed to house a very tiny replica of an equestrian statue of Peter the Great.

Imperial Peter the Great Easter Egg<

Imperial Peter the Great Easter Egg, 1903
Carl Fabergé (1846-1920)
Egg: gold, platinum, silver gilt, diamonds, rubies, enamel, watercolour, ivory, rock crystal, 12 x 7.9 cm
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Bequest of Lillian Thomas Pratt
Photo Katherine Wetzel © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Craftsmanship

Globeflowers

Globeflowers (buttercups)
Carl Fabergé (1846-1920)
Gold, enamel, nephrite, rock crystal
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Bequest of Lillian Thomas Pratt
Photo Katherine Wetzel © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Carl Fabergé thought jewellery should be valued for its quality craftsmanship and clever design, rather than its total carat weight. From 1870 – 1917, his workshops produced some 200 000 objects, all meeting his high standards. In order to fill this lofty order, at its height the House of Fabergé employed over 500 craftsmen.

Miniature hardstone carvings embellished with precious metals depict everything from chickens and dogs to elephants and owls. The stones were specially selected to produce an accurate representation of each animal.

The flower sculptures are particularly beautiful. At first glance, I had thought that the museum had placed the flowers in small clear water-filled vases to enhance the realism. But on closer inspection, these “water-filled” vases are sculpted cut-rock crystal.

The centerpiece of the third room is the 1912 Imperial Cesarevich Easter Egg. Taking about a year to design and create, every egg contained a surprise. This stunning lapis lazuli egg, adorned with the Russian emblem two-headed eagle, contained a diamond encrusted, two-sided portrait of the Czar’s son Alexei.

Imperial Cesarevich Easter Egg

Imperial Cesarevich Easter Egg, 1912
Carl Fabergé (1846-1920)
Diamonds, gold, lapis lazuli, 12.5 x 8.9 cm
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Bequest of Lillian Thomas Pratt
Photo © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Photo Katherine Wetzel

The Final Days of Fabergé

Imperial Red Cross Easter Egg Portraits

Imperial Red Cross Easter Egg Portraits, 1915
Carl Fabergé (Russian, 1846-1920)
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Bequest of Lillian Thomas Pratt
Photo © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Photo Katherine Wetzel

The dark and sombre fourth room covers the beginning of WWI, the 1917 Russian Revolution and the end of the Romanov dynasty. Reflecting the times, the 1915 Imperial Red Cross Easter Egg is a sedate tribute to the Dowager Empress’s work as president of the Russian Red Cross. The surprise hidden in this egg is a folding set of portraits of the Czar’s wife, daughters, sisters and niece dressed for tending to the wounded. The family had opened up part of the palace to be used as a hospital and even assisted during operations. But these acts of duty and compassion were not enough to change the strong coming tides that ultimately ended with the execution of the Czar and his family.

Imperial Red Cross Easter Egg

Imperial Red Cross Easter Egg, 1915
Carl Fabergé (Russian, 1846-1920)
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Bequest of Lillian Thomas Pratt
Photo © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Photo Katherine Wetzel

The end of the Romanov reign heralded the end of the House of Fabergé. Carl and his family were forced to flee the country. The story of the jeweller to the czars ends unceremoniously, but the legacy of his work has only grown in the passing decades.

A visit to the exhibit offers a look at the work of the world’s best known jeweller and the royal family that elevated him to this level of fame.

For ticket prices and exhibit hours: www.mbam.qc.ca or 514-285-2000

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