Ever since Tsar Alexander III gifted the first Easter egg to his wife, Tsarina Maria Feodorovna, in 1885, people all over the world have been amazed by the beauty of the Imperial Eggs. These eggs, crafted by the House of Fabergé, have a long and complex history, much like Saint Petersburg, the city where they were designed, created, displayed, seized, returned and now displayed again. Today, museums and private collections all over the world have forty-three of the original fifty imperial eggs on display. The three largest collections of Fabergé eggs are the state-owned Kremlin Armory in Moscow, Russia which exhibits ten eggs; the private Fabergé Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, which has nine eggs; and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) in Richmond, Virginia which features five eggs.
History of Fabergé Eggs
“The egg, perfect in form and carrying within it a new life, has been a universal symbol of rebirth for thousands of years” (Forbes 3). In Imperial Russia, the Orthodox-Christian celebration of Easter (Paskha) was the most important and sacred holiday of the year. The Easter egg tradition in Russia stems back to Pre-Christian times; each year, Russians would decorate eggs by boiling them in onion peels and flowers until they turned various shades of maroon, symbolizing the blood of Christ, and then they would exchange them with neighbors (Revinskaya). The Romanov Tsars also participated in this tradition, raising the custom to the level of imperial luxury.
Each of the Imperial Easter Eggs are completely unique and made from a range of materials including gold, rock crystal, enamel, and quartz, and encompassed in fine stones and gems like diamonds, sapphires, rubies, and emeralds, ranging in size from two to nearly six inches. Almost all of them open to reveal a surprise. Jo Briggs, the associate curator of 18th-19th-century art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, describes the eggs as “the most expensive gift wrap you could ever make” (Leser). Although Fabergé supervised the work of all of the masters in his shop, he personally never worked on any of the eggs. Most of the eggs were crafted by two workmasters Michael Evlampievich Perchin and Henrik Wigsröm (Forbes 3).
In 1885, Tsar Alexander III commissioned the first egg as an Easter gift for his wife, Tsarina Maria Feodorovna. For this, he selected Peter Carl Fabergé, the Award-Winning Master Gold Smith, and owner of House of Fabergé, a moderately successful jewelry business in St. Petersburg, Russia (Lesser). This first egg, the Hen Egg, was a simple 2.5-inch gold egg encased in matte white enamel. The shell of the egg opened to reveal a gold yolk, which opened to reveal a surprise requested by the tsar: a golden hen with ruby eyes sitting on a nest of gold straw. The hen, in turn, opened to reveal a small ruby pendant which has unfortunately been lost (Forbes 3). The Tsarina was so impressed by the egg, that the following year Alexander commissioned Fabergé to make another, asking that it too contain a surprise. From that year on, the House of Fabergé crafted an original and unique Easter egg for the Tsar’s wife. When Alexander III died in 1894, his son Nicholas II carried on the tradition. Each year he commissioned two eggs from Fabergé: one for his mother, Maria Feodorovna, and one for his wife, Alexandra Feodorovna (Lesser). Eggs were made for the Romanovs each year from 1885 until 1916, except in 1904 and 1905, due to the Russo-Japanese War. They were displayed only to family and guests of the Imperial Palaces. The final two eggs were started in 1917 but never finished as a consequence of the Russian Revolution and the execution of the Royal family (Lesser). In addition to the fifty eggs made for the Imperial family, Fabergé created at least fifteen others, twelve of which were for the wealthy Kelch family. Though still “Fabergé eggs”, these eggs were not as exquisite as the Imperial eggs, and were not unique in design as many of them were copied from other eggs (Forbes 4).
After the Russian Revolution in 1917, Bolsheviks looted and transported the eggs to Moscow, where they were undervalued and sold. In many cases, the surprises were sold separately from the eggs for additional monetary benefit, and were often lost forever. Of the original fifty, only ten were returned to the Kremlin Armory Museum. Other eggs were sold to private dealers and to wealthy private collectors in Europe and America. In 1933, Armand Hammer sold five eggs to Lillian Thomas Pratt, who later donated them to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) (Curry 2). More recently, Viktor Vekselberg purchased a large collection of nine Fabergé Eggs and other Fabergé works of art from the magazine publisher, Malcolm S. Forbes, who is credited with upcharging the price and popularity of the Imperial Easter Eggs. Vekselberg and his Link of the Times Foundation opened the Fabergé Museum at Shuvalov Palace in St. Petersburg in 2013 in order to repatriate lost cultural valuables to Russia (Shanayeva 259).
Fabergé Egg Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia
The Fabergé Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia is a privately owned museum established by Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg and his Link of Times foundation to repatriate lost cultural valuables to Russia. The museum is located in the recently renovated Shuvalov Palace on the Fontanka River. The museum’s collection contains more than four thousand works of decorative applied and fine arts, including gold and silver items, paintings, porcelain and bronze, though the highlight of the museum’s collection is the nine Imperial Easter eggs: First Hen, Renaissance, Rosebud, Coronation, Lilies of the Valley, Cockerel, Anniversary, Bay Tree, and the Order of St. George, each of which will be specifically detailed later in this paper. The museum also includes six other eggs made by Fabergé: Kelch Hen, Kelch Chanticleer, Duchess of Marlborough, Resurrection, Scandinavian, and Spring Flowers (Baker). The world’s second largest collection of Fabergé eggs are all located in the Blue Room of Shuvalov Palace.
In the 18th century, the Shuvalov palace was home to the noble Shuvalov and Naryshkin families. During the Siege of Leningrad, the palace was bombed heavily. In 2004, Vekselberg purchased the large collection of Fabergé Eggs from Malcolm S. Forbes for upwards of $120 million, with the intent of displaying them in a museum of his own creation (Shanayeva 259). Since then, Vekselberg and his foundation have collected over four thousand pieces of Russian decorative and fine artwork; in 2006, they purchased the Shuvalov Palace, determined to turn it into a fully functional museum. For the next seven years, Vekselberg and his foundation renovated the 18th-century palace into the Fabergé Museum, and on November 19th, 2013 the museum had its official opening ceremony (Baker). The Fabergé Museum is significant to St. Petersburg because it represents the return of treasures lost to their original place of creation and enjoyment.
This summer, I had the pleasure of visiting this museum and being able to see nine of the imperial eggs in person. From the outside, the palace looks very much like many of the other buildings in Saint Petersburg. There are fourteen rooms to tour in the palace. When you first enter into the museum, you are greeted by the grand staircase, a large double staircase dotted with sculptures and lined with marble columns. At the top of the stairs, you are led into the Knight’s Hall, a room decorated with wooden soldiers and horses, which displays military-themed works of art and silver kitchenware made by Faberge. The next room, the red room, contains a collection of Russian silverworks. Following the red room, is the blue room, which I will discuss in more detail in a following paragraph. After that is the gold room, in which gifts from the Tsars, objets de fantaisie made by House of Fabergé, and jeweled boxes are exhibited. Following that, is the Anteroom. jewelry, small items, accessories, and clocks made of guilloché enamel are displayed here. The next room is the white and blue room where they exhibit enamel from Pavel Ovchinnikov and Russian porcelain.
At this point, we were halfway through the tour. The next room was the exhibition room, which previously served as the Shuvalov’s personal museum; there were stone carvings by Faberge and 19th century paintings in this room. Following this, we toured Gothic Hall, which was filled with a large collection of Russian icons from the 16th-20th century. Subsequently, our guide took us to the Upper Dining Room where we viewed Russian impressionist paintings. The next two rooms, the Beige Room and the Sky Blue Room, both contained pieces made of Russian enamel. Next, we saw serverware in the Terracotta room, and finally we visited White Column/Alexander Hall, the largest ballroom in the palace (and all of Russia during the time of Alexander I).
The nine Imperial Eggs are displayed in the blue room of the palace. Each egg and/or surprise is displayed its own case and visitors are able to walk all the way around to see each egg from all sides. In my opinion, this room was decorated the most lavishly; the walls are decorated to mimic Gzhel, a Russian style of blue and white ceramics, and the furnishings were covered in gold leaf. [insert blue room picture]
The Hen Egg was the first egg produced for the Royal Family in 1885. The hen egg’s covering is white opaque enamel, which imitates eggshell, and the yolk is made of brushed gold. The egg contains a hen made of colorful mosaic gold, and inside of the hen there is a ruby pendant (Wintraecken). The Renaissance Jewelry Box Egg was the last egg Alexander III presented to his wife. The egg was made in 1984, the same year the Czar was killed. The egg is cut from agate and has a gold frame, partially covered in enamel with lion mascarons, interspersed with rubies and diamonds. The date when the egg was created is lined on the upper half of the egg in diamonds. The egg opens horizontally like a jewelry box. The surprise from this egg has unfortunately been lost, but some historians believe that it was pearls. Another theory is that the Renaissance egg contained the Resurrection egg, because the style and coloring of both objects are virtually identical and the size of the Resurrection Egg perfectly fits the curvature of the Renaissance egg (Wintraecken).
The Rosebud Egg was the first egg given to Alexandra Feodrovna by her husband Nicholas II. This egg is a bright red, strawberry enamel on a guilloche background, and is decorated with diamond arrows, leafy garland and wreaths of gold. At the top, there is a large flat diamond and a miniature portrait of Nicholas II. The egg’s surprise is the bud of a rose on a short stem with a small knob, which opens the flower’s petals when pressed (Wintraecken). The Imperial Coronation Egg was dedicated to the Coronation of Nicholas II and his wife in 1897. The egg shell is yellow enamel on a guilloche background, with enamel eagles connected by branches of gold. The upper half of the egg contains a diamond with the Tsarina’ monogram and on the bottom of the egg, there is a smaller diamond through which you can read the date 1897. The surprise of this egg was an exact miniature replica of the coronation carriage (Wintraecken).
The Lilies of the Valley Egg, designed in an Art-Nouveau style, was presented to Tsarina Alexandra in 1898. It is made of gold, green-gold, translucent rose pink and green enamel, diamonds, rubies, pearls, rock crystal and watercolor on ivory. The egg’s surprise is miniature portraits of the Emperor and his two older daughters. The portraits appear from inside the egg upon the turning of a pearl pin. When closed, the space is hidden by a miniature copy of the imperial crown, covered with diamonds (Wintraecken). The Cockerel Egg (1900) was Fabergé’s first rendition of a singing bird clock, similar to those made in Geneva in the 19th century. When one clicks the button on the top of the egg, the lid opens and a cockerel with real feathers appears, crows, flaps his wings, and then disappears back inside the egg again. The body of the egg is an enameled violet on a guilloche background, supported by three slender rectangular columns. The egg’s face is covered with a white enamel clock dial, diamond-set Arabic numerals, and gold hands. The border of the dial is set with pearls, and above the dial there is an arch of foliage set with diamonds and pearls. Below the dial there is interlacing gold decor set with diamonds and hung with tassels and fruit. These details make the egg similar to an altar, perhaps in memory of the son of Maria Feodorovna, Georgy Alexandrovich, who died the previous year (Wintraecken).
The Fifteenth Anniversary Egg, presented to Tsarina Alexandra in 1911, commemorated their coronation. This egg contains no surprise, but is the only egg where the Romanovs gave Faberge specific instructions on how to design the Easter egg. The shell of this egg is divided into eighteen panels with 16 miniatures. Each miniature is bordered by green enameled foliage and diamond-set ribbons at the intersections. All of the miniatures were painted by Vasilii Zuiev and framed with rock crystal to mimic glass. The seven oval portraits depict the Imperial family, and the nine larger panels depict scenes from the life of Nicholas II. The two oval panels beneath the miniatures of Nicholas and Alexandra enclose the dates 1894, the date of their wedding, and 1911, the fifteenth anniversary of the coronation (Wintraecken). The Bay Tree egg was presented to Maria Feodorovna to celebrate her 30th anniversary on the Imperial throne. The tree’s crown contains an opening for a key and a tiny lever. When pressed, a bird with iridescent feathers appears from inside the tree to flap its wings and sing. The leaves of the tree are made of jade, and covered with amethysts, citrines, pink diamonds, and small white enamel flowers. The tree is planted in gold soil in a pot made of white onyx, draped with golden netting and hanging enamel garlands (Wintraecken).
The final Imperial egg in the Saint Petersburg Faberge Museum is the Order of St. George Egg, the final egg gifted to Nicolas II’s mother in 1916. This egg has a more modern design, and did not contain a surprise, because the best craftsmen were called off to the front lines to fight in World War I. This egg is engraved and enameled with green leaf-tips and small St. George crosses under a shell of translucent oyster colored enamel. It is draped with the ribbon of the Imperial Order of St. George enameled black and orange. One side has a white and red enamel Badge of the Imperial Order of St. George suspended from the bow of the Order, and opens and reveals a portrait miniature of Tsar Nicholas II. The other side of the Egg has a silver St. George medal with the profile of Nicholas II, and a border inscribed in Cyrillic, “His Majesty Nicholas II, Autocrat of all Russia” suspended from a similar bow, which opens to reveal a portrait miniature of the Tsarevich Alexei Nikolaievich. The backside of the medal is inscribed in Cyrillic, “For Bravery, 4th Class,”. This is the only egg Maria Feodrovna took his her when she fled Russia in 1919 (Wintraecken).
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Virginia
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts or VMFA is an art museum in Richmond, Virginia, United States which opened in 1936. The museum is owned and operated by the Commonwealth of Virginia, but receives much of its funding from private donors across the country. Today, it is one of the largest art museums in the United States. From 1933 to 1946, Lillian Thomas Pratt of Fredericksburg, Virginia assembled a collection of around 475 Russian decorative art objects, many of which she purchased from Armand Hammer of Hammer Galleries (Curry 39). After her death in 1947, Pratt bequeathed her collection of Fabergé and Russian decorative arts, including about 200 objects from Fabergé, to the VMFA. Her donation includes a collection of five Imperial Easter Eggs: Red Cross, Czarevich, Pelican, Peter the Great, and Rock Crystal (Curry 51). The VMFA is significant because it is the largest public collection of Fabergé eggs in the United States, and more importantly, outside of Russia. In 1954, the VMFA opened the first permanent Fabergé gallery exhibition, and in 1996, VMFA presented Fabergé in America and The Lillian Thomas Pratt Collection of Fabergé. These two exhibitions drew more than 130,000 visitors to Richmond (Proctor). The VMFA also displays “Fauxbergé” works, a term coined to describe objects “no longer accepted as being made by the Fabergé Workshops” (Curry 103). This museum is the only one of the three discussed to include inauthentic works.
After I returned from St. Petersburg, my family and I traveled to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and visited the Faberge and Russian Arts exhibit. This museum was free to enter and had art from all over the world. Unlike the Faberge museum, which specialized in Faberge and Russian art, the VMFA only had Lillian Pratt’s collection on display, making it a much smaller exhibit. Another difference between the two museum was that we had a guide in St. Petersburg, but we did not in Richmond, VA. To compensate for this difference, the VMFA had plaques and posters all over the Russian Arts exhibit explaining to people about the history of Russia during the time of Czar Alexander III and Nicolas II, something which would not be necessary in Russia. The VMFA also had large interactive tablets to learn more about the specific history and construction of each of the eggs and a mobile app which allowed visitors to create their own egg. Visitors were also able to explore history from the perspectives of the Romanov family, Russian fairy tales, Lillian Pratt Thomas, and others. Similar to the Faberge Museum, the Imperial eggs were encased free-standing glass displays, allowing visitors to view each egg from 360 degrees. Unlike the Faberge museum, which had many windows and allowed natural light, the eggs in the VMFA were displayed in a comparatively darker room with spotlights shining on the eggs which made them reflect light. In the VMFA, it did not feel like the Imperial Eggs were necessarily the focus or highlight of the museum, simply because there were so many other exhibits there.
The Pelican Egg of 1898 was presented to Maria Feodrovna by her son Nicolas II. The egg is one of the few eggs that is not enameled over most of its surface. It is made of engraved red gold, surmounted by a pelican feeding her young in a nest in gray, blue and pink enamel. The Egg is engraved with classical motifs, the commemorative dates 1797 – 1897, and the inscription “Visit our vineyards, O Lord, and we shall dwell in thee.” This Egg unfolds into a screen of eight ivory miniatures depicting eight Russian universities, painted by court miniaturist Johannes Zehngraf on ivory ovals (Wintraecken). The Tsarevich Egg of 1912 was made from blue lapis lazuli, with Louis XV-style gold cagework in a design of leafy scrolls for Alexandra. The goldwork includes two Imperial double-headed eagles, as well as cupids, canopies, floral scrolls, flower baskets and garlands. There are two large diamonds on the top and bottom of the egg with the initials of Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna and the year 1912. The surprise inside this egg is a Russian double-headed Imperial eagle with a miniature portrait of the Tsarevich Alexei, set in platinum and encrusted with diamonds (Wintraecken). The Imperial Peter the Great Egg was made in commemoration of the 200th Anniversary of the founding of St. Petersburg in 1903. The body of this egg is made of gold, set with diamonds and rubies, and covered in leaves made of green gold. The egg’s shell features four miniature watercolors painted by B. Byalz. The paintings represent the before and after of St. Petersburg in 1703 and 1903. The front painting features the extravagant Winter Palace, and the back painting is the log cabin believed to be built by Peter the Great. On the sides of the egg are portraits of Peter the Great in 1703 and Nicholas II in 1903. When opened, the surprise of this egg is a miniature figurine of The Bronze Horseman with a base made of sapphire (Wintraecken). The Red Cross Portraits Egg of 1915 was a gift to Maria Feodrovna. The Imperial Red Cross Easter Egg is made of silver, surrounded by a number of gold horizontal bands. Two red crosses, made of enamel, are on either side of the egg, and includes the date 1914 and 1915. Inscribed on the outside of the egg are the words, “Greater Love hath no man than this, to lay down his life for his friends”. Maria Fedorovna’s monogram is displayed on the top of the shell. The surprise of this egg is a hinged folding screen of five oval portraits of women from the House of Romanov wearing the Red Cross uniform. This egg is significant to Maria because she served in the Red Cross during the Russo-Turkish war and remained the president of the Red Cross until she died (Wintraecken). The 1896 Revolving Miniatures or Rock Crystal Egg has an outer shell of rock crystal banded with green gold and studded with diamonds. On the top of the egg is a 27-carat Siberian emerald supported by a green gold mount. The surprise of this egg twelve miniature paintings. The paintings are of the various palaces that hold significance to the Empress. When the emerald is pressed, the miniatures rotate inside the egg like a picture book (Wintraecken).
Repatriation of Russian Art
Over the past few decades, the repatriation of cultural property, including art pieces, has become a controversial topic of debate. In the view of Jenya Shanayeva, “[repatriation] represents the efforts of nations to reclaim cultural property that was removed legally and illegally from their countries through wartime plunder, forced sale, theft, changes in statehood territories, and the breakdown of multinational states” (Shanayeva 261). In this view, it is quite simply unjust for other countries to display the stolen cultural property of other nations in museums and private collections. Others argue that such national treasures should be kept in Western museums where more people are likely to see and enjoy them, and see little moral or ethical issues at stake. Of course, there are significant legal issues at stake here: “international law principles articulated in multilateral treaties require the owners in possession to return cultural property that was stolen or plundered as a result of conflicts to the countries of their origin” (262). Be that as it may, the law says nothing about what to do when good-faith purchasers buy another country’s cultural property.
Cultural repatriation and good faith purchasing has especially become a problem in Russia, a country that has contributed significant musical, literary, artistic, scientific, and academic achievements to the world. It also, however, saw so much of its cultural wealth and knowledge stolen or destroyed during the twentieth century, not least the Imperial Easter Eggs. After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, thirty-one eggs were stolen and sold for profit in the 1920s and 1930s. The Soviet government also destroyed much of the Romanov’s treasures by melting down the silver and recasting it as silver rubles (Shanayeva 265). The Bolshevik government sold the eggs that remained in Russia for less than a quarter of their worth in an attempt to boost the economy: “the 1912 Tsarevich Egg made by Fabergé for Tsarina Alexandra, Nicholas II’s wife, was valued at 100,000 rubles and was sold to Armand Hammer in 1930 for 8,000 rubles” (266).
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, international disputes arose between Russia and Germany over art stolen during World War II. In the early 1990s, art historians discovered a large collection of art stolen by the Red Army from Germany during World War II. Germany fought to have this cultural property returned, but Russia argued that restitution would constitute a gross injustice in light of the enormous and irreparable damage caused to the former Soviet Union by Nazi aggressors (Shanayeva 268). Despite these tensions, in 2000 Russia’s president Vladimir Putin agreed to return several invaluable art collections, namely the Bremen Leaves Collection and the Baldwin Collection, to Germany.
The Fabergé Collection has a slightly different problem. First, the eggs belonged to the Romanov family before they were stolen, so returning the eggs to their “true owners” becomes very difficult. Second, there are no clear laws on what to do when someone discovers they have legally purchased illegally obtained artwork. Third, the Russian state government has begun to claim ownership rights over the eggs because they believe that these treasures belong to the State. (Shanayeva 271). Additionally, Viktor Vekselberg, the purchaser of fifteen Fabergé Eggs, has been accused of purchasing the eggs with money siphoned from a money laundering scheme. After the matter went to court, it appeared likely that Vekselberg had used illegal funds to purchase the Eggs, but he stills remains the lawful possessor of the Forbes Collection in accordance with Russian ownership laws (260). Currently, the dispute over Vekselberg’s collection centers around the fact that the Russian government wants to own the collection. But, in order for that to happen, the Russian Federation would need to prove that Vekselberg’s collection was illegally removed from the territory of the Russian State (which it was not). Moreover, it would come off problematic for the Russian State to “assert its rights to property that its own government at one point willingly sold” (273)
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From the 19th century to today, people all over the world have been amazed by the beauty and history of the Imperial Eggs of Faberge. The eggs displayed in the Faberge Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia and Richmond, Virginia make up nearly 35% of the non-missing eggs exhibited today. The remainder of the paper is structured as follows: first, I will discuss the history of the Imperial Eggs and their significance. The Imperial Easter Eggs are of significant importance to the city of St. Petersburg because through the eggs, historians are able to add more texture to the history leading up to the Russian Revolution. By detailing the eggs, people learn about a more personal side of the Czars that may have otherwise been excluded from history books. Furthermore, by comparing and contrasting two of the largest collections of these eggs inside and outside of Russia, one can debate about the repatriation of art and having foreign artifacts displayed in a place different than their national origin.