Faberge, A La Vieille Russie and Wartski


By Clive Kandel

The Old Bolshevik cliche was ‘what’s yours is mine and what’s mine is mine’. The New Oligarchs seem to be thinking the same way as The Old Guard. The Russian bears are looking for their Faberge honey and they have huge sticky paws. The Tsar would purchase a couple of eggs every year from Faberge and later be murdered for such self indulgence. Millions of people wanted His head because His family seemed such wastrels. Marie Antoinette merely admired a priceless diamond necklace and her head was chopped off.

After the Romanovs had been dispatched, their belongings were gathered up, catalogued and prepared for sale by Lenin and his comrades.

Faberge pale blue enamel clock depicting a sepia painting of the Admiralty, St. Petersburg (courtesy of A La Vieille Russie, New York).

They needed customers with cash who understood the Russian bargaining system. Two dealers had the foresight to go to Soviet Russia in the 1920’s and trade honey for Faberge. Filthy lucre for pretty Faberge seemed a fair Bolshevik trade. These jewelers became the most famous and reputable Faberge dealers during the last century, that means before 2000. A La Vieille Russie of Paris and New York and Wartski of London. The first was founded by Alexander Schaffer and the second by Emanuel Snowman. Trading slowly began as the 1920’s rich began to like the Romanov trinkets. Faberge had an aura of old money, looked 18th century and was cheaper than that new over priced vulgar stuff on the Rue de la Paix. It also looked good with your Louis XVI furniture from Seligmann’s.

Marjorie Merriweather Post bought an egg here, one there. Queen Mary bought or borrowed a few. Ganna Walska laid an egg by marrying Mr. McCormick of International Harvester.Then there were the refined, quiet American ladies such as Gray, Minshall, and Pratt who sat and hatched their Faberge eggs like good mother hens. There had been the odd character here and there who had splurged only to go splat. King Farouk went belly up. He had a big one … belly and collection. Years later, Malcolm Forbes roared in on his motor bike rounding up all the Faberge he could lay his leather-gloved hands on. A collector still needed some charm apart from cash in those days.

Faberge bell push bought by the Tsar’s sister Grand Duchess Xenia, later owned by King George I of Greece (courtesy of Wartski, London).

Forbes was a brilliant collector, had charm and money. While Reagan was asking Gorbachev to take down that pesky wall, Forbes was grinning and accumulating the most exceptional collection of Imperial Russian commissioned Faberge. Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s was the Forbes way of collecting. Much to his credit, he opened his own museum to the public here in New York. As with Nicholas II, death suddenly visited Malcolm Forbes. You can’t take it with you, so the Faberge had to be sold at Sothebys New York April 2004.

It was going to be a tremendous sale … dealers, collectors, journalists and cameras at the ready for the most phenomenal Faberge auction ever to be held. Oh, the excitement, the public, the viewing, pushing, shoving, stupid comments … doesn’t that look just like granny’s Lladro poodle? It’s a public auction, hundreds of paddles were made. Drum roll … sorry, what did you just say? I beg your pardon? Who? Never heard of him. A Mr. Viktor Vekselberg just wrote out a check for over $100 million for the lot … yes … all of it. How do you say that name again? Where’s he from? Brooklyn or where? You mean he just bought it ALL? No auction, sorry, bye bye. And they said Queen Mary was greedy? You see what happens when you take down those pesky walls? Wrong people move in, there goes the neighbourhood. All that Faberge is now in Russia. I think.

Faberge clock bought by the Tsar and Tsarina in 1901 (courtesy Wartski, London).

Now prices are shooting up, money is no object. Russians want their Faberge back, art, trappings, books … everything. Revolution, Bolsheviks, Stalin, Romanovs? We want it back now! Well, they are a fun loving bunch and we know they like to win. Sometimes they take a short cut. It’s the Russian way. Last month in London, Sotheby’s was going to hold a sale of the Russian art collection of cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. The day before the auction as to be held, everybody and anybody was at the ready to bid, buy and fight. Auctions like these are high hormonal events. Get ready, get set, on your marks … plop.

Faberge 10th Anniversary photo frame made for The Grand Duke Michael, 1901 (courtesy A La Vieille Russie, New York).

Ladies and gentleman, we regret to inform you that a Mr. Alisher Usmanov of Ukraine has just kindly written a check to Sotheby’s for over $72,000,000 for the entire auction due to be held tomorrow. Tea will therefore not be served. Good bye.

Mr. Usmanov? I don’t believe he is from Brooklyn, sir. I am afraid I have no idea but he does seem to have rather an awful lot of money.

Anybody know of a good firm of bricklayers? Wartski of London holds several Royal Warrants. They are ‘ By Appointment’ as we say. When your’e at the Armory this week, go to their Booth and introduce yourself to Geoffrey Munn, the director. He and I have known each other since the last century. We were neighbours. He’s very bright, honest and totally out of central casting. They threw the mold away years ago.

A La Vieille Russie are the nicest most comfortable men to chat and do business with. Yes, they want to sell but while you’re spending a cozy time with them passing the moments, the values are rising so cut them short on the chit chat and just say, ”I’ll take it, cash n wrap.” Treat both firms like great old private banks. Your Faberge is their business and their business is your trust.

Nicholas II, all is forgiven.

Images Courtesy of Christies Images, Sotheby’s Images, V & A , British Museum,
and Clive Kandel Collection