Some men prefer blondes, I prefer Cartier. However, I do enjoy writing about Fabergé and the Russians. The Imperial Russian Jeweler deserves a 1,200-page novel describing the emotions and escapades caused by his brilliant artistry. No other jewelry or objets d’art have ever brought out so much emotion based in fortune, greed and misery. However, this tale has a happy ending.
The Belle Epoque love affair with the styles of King Louis XV and XVI gave Faberge, for the most part, a gilded platter on which to serve up his modern creations. The workmanship was unique, but the design inspiration was catering to the fashion of recreating Versailles. Palaces, grand homes and even modest dwellings were Louis-inspired.
Fabergé took advantage of the eighteenth century use and presentation of valuable boxes, which were very much the domain of wealthy monarchs and aristocrats. Under the guise of use as a snuffbox, noblemen would carry their extremely valuable gold boxes as a public symbol of their wealth. Valuable boxes were presented as gifts; the value would be according to the recipient’s rank and importance to the giver. The Imperial Russian Chancellery had a constant supply at hand, ready to be used by the Tsars for this purpose.
Miechen is wearing the famous Tiara known as ‘the Vladimir Tiara’ that was bought by Queen Mary, and frequently worn by HM Queen Elizabeth.
Photograph Clive Kandel Collection
Reproduction strictly prohibited
The Rani is dressed in Callot Soeurs for a private
presentation at Buckingham Palace to
King George and Queen Mary.
This Tiara was bought from Miechen shortly before her death
by the Raja. Miechen had told him that she was sure that
the Bolsheviks would be beaten and she would return home.
According to period witnesses, Grand Duke Vladimir’s German-born wife, the Grand Duchess Vladimir, Marie Pavlovna, was “the” lady of Europe and her Court at the Vladimir Palace outshone that of the Tsar and Tsarina. She purchased jewels from Bolin and Cartier and boxes and other delights from Fabergé. In return, because of her exalted status as the leading lady of St. Petersburg, she and her husband the Grand Duke received Fabergé objets and boxes from the Imperial Family.
The Grand Duchess was born a Duchess of Mecklenburg-Schwerin. She married the third son of Alexander II, Grand Duke Vladimir, in 1874 and they produced four surviving children. For the purpose of this story, the most important child was their sole daughter, the Grand Duchess Elena Vladimirovna. Elena married Prince Nicholas of Greece and Denmark in 1902 and they had three daughters. Simplification of the reproductive habits of this immense family is necessary unless you are very well acquainted with the Almanach de Gotha. At some point one could run the risk of the family tree reading like the Old Testament — this one begat that one and that one begat this one.
Suffice it to say, the Vladimir jewels and wealth were enormous, as were the Grand Duchess’s style and grandeur. Before the overthrow of the Imperial Monarchy, Miechen (the German diminutive family name for Marie) plotted and planned against the Tsar, and especially the German-born Tsarina. In spite of all the back stabbing and grabbing, the sole winners were the Bolsheviks, and soon the Romanovs were either hovering around the Caucasus waiting and debating or getting slaughtered.
Photograph Clive Kandel Collection
Reproduction strictly prohibited
Wearing the Rani of Pudukota’s Tiara that had been bought from Miechen in
1920, then resold by the Rani in 1934 for 2,000
pounds to the City of London Corporation
to be given as a wedding gift to Marina.
Most of Marina’s old diamonds came from her mother, Princess Nicholas. Miechen was taking her time about departing Russia. She was hoping for a turnaround of events which would enable her to return to St. Petersburg. Finally, in order to avoid being publicly deloused with fellow fleeing refugees, she waited until that risk was past and left for Venice in February 1920. During her waiting period, the shrewd Grand Duchess had engaged a British Diplomatic Courier, Albert Stopford, to gain access to her jewelry collection in Petrograd and deliver it to London for safekeeping.
Now the cloak and dagger part of this tale finally starts. Unbeknownst to Miechen, a Professor Bergholz, in the spirit of the Scarlet Pimpernel, had managed to get into the Grand Duke’s apartment in the Vladimir Palace to see if there were any valuables he could rescue. Opening sealed drawers in the dressing room, he discovered an enormous collection of Faberge boxes and cufflinks which he stuffed into two pillowcases he had ripped off the Imperial bed. Obviously a gentleman, Bergholz delivered the stuffed pillowcases, simply marked in ink as the property of the Grand Duchess, to the Petrograd Swedish Legation for safekeeping.
If Professor Bergholz had brought the ‘found’ Fabergé to London, rest assured Queen Mary would have acquired the best pieces for the Royal Collection.
Sweden severed diplomatic relations with Russia in 1918, and presumably all contents of the Legation were moved to Stockholm through Finland. Moving house can be very messy and things get lost and mislaid. But this was 1918 and there must have been chaos and turmoil. Two stained stuffed striped pillowcases were probably shoved into a trunk, joisted onto a sleigh and jostled off to Stockholm to be dumped in some bureaucrat’s filing cabinet or laundry bin. Miechen never knew, nor did any surviving members of the family, about the abandoned Fabergé.
Settling in her home in France, being German and practical, she started to sell some jewels; however, she was tired, worn out and sick. The Grand Duchess Vladimir died in Contrexeville in 1920. Her superb jewels were divided amongst the four children. Until the advent of modern Christie’s and Sotheby’s, and even in my own experience, families divided jewelry by color. Grand Dukes Boris, Cyril and Andrei and Elena, Princess Nicholas of Greece, chose what they wanted. Queen Mary bought the famous looped tiara from Princess Nicholas and Barbara Hutton ended up with the famous emeralds which now belong to Elizabeth Taylor. Remember, you can’t take your jewels with you when the reaper comes. Just a reminder for those of you with avaricious thoughts.
Mothers and daughters often have a “jewelry relationship.” Mothers buy jewels using the excuse that one day the daughter will have them and the daughters wait for the Mother’s jewels for various reasons. Miechen’s daughter, Princess Nicholas of Greece (Grand Duchess Elena) had three daughters: Olga married Prince Paul of Yugoslavia, Elisabeth married Count Carl Toerring-Jettembach and the most well known, Princess Marina, married the Duke of Kent. A few well-known descendants of these well-married daughters are HRH Prince Dimitri, grandson of Olga; HRH Princess Alexandra of Kent, daughter of Princess Marina; Lord Frederick Windsor, son of HRH Prince and Princess Michael of Kent (Marina’s youngest son).
Marina is wearing rubies by Cartier London.
The Duke of Kent bought more jewels than
his brother, the Prince of Wales
(Duke of Windsor). His jewelry spending
was of great concern to his parents,
King George and Queen Mary.
Apparently, in 1952, some honest Swede in the Foreign Ministry decided to break open the red waxen sealed pillowcases. Swedes are reserved, calm, honest and unflappable. The contents were counted, replaced in the old linen and put back where they were found. I can hear Miechen screaming.
Fifty-six years later, January 2009, another honest Swede came across the striped bundles. A general cleaning up was underway and some person had the good idea that perhaps the family should be notified that great-grandmother Grand Duchess Vladimir’s Fabergé was ready to be picked up. Imagine that this was happening to you but let’s not play “Antiques Roadshow”….it’s highly unlikely.
Heinrich Graf (that means Count) von Spreti of Sotheby’s Munich was the first specialist to examine the treasure, as agreed by the heirs of Miechen. Putting greed aside if you can, for one moment please, this was an astounding find. About one hundred and ten items, Fabergé Imperial boxes, gem-studded cufflinks, all of the greatest importance, hitherto unseen, were going to be sold at Sotheby’s in London. I’m sure the heirs were delighted that the spirit of the Grand Duchess was now at rest and perhaps slightly pleased about the financial windfall.
Very honorably, the heirs have issued a statement that in memory of the Grand Duke and Duchess Vladimir, three charitable donations will be made from the funds from the sale. Miechen’s home in Schwerin will receive funds for restoration of the church, an official biography will be published and, finally, the St. Vladimir Chapel in Contrexeville will be endowed.
The final amount of the sale at Sotheby’s London 30 November 2009 fetched over seven million pounds, or 12.5 million dollars. The most magnificent boxes fetched around one million dollars each. These amounts are a sign of the strange times we live in, as well as the deep desire within Fabergé collectors to possess.
Sic Transit Gloria Mundi.
Miechen’s great grandson, always bearing a smile and now ‘in the pink’.
Wearing a pin belonging to her great grandmother, Miechen.
Images Courtesy of Christies Images, Sotheby’s Images, V & A , British Museum,
and Clive Kandel Collection