Doubtful eggs in the Hermitage

It won’t be an exaggeration to consider The House of Fabergé as the most important Russian jewelry company of the past, and – since it is the only internationally appreciated Russian jewelry brand among collectors – the present.

In November 2020 the exhibition “Fabergé: Jeweller to the Imperial Court” opened at the Hermitage museum in Saint Petersburg. It is the second major exhibition of the Maison in the Hermitage ever, after a long break – the first took place in 1993. Rumors about the current show started before the opening, and they continue to arrive. To make a long story short: several Fabergé scholars supposed that a part of the exhibits on display might not be authentic.

The exhibition presents items from the Hermitage’s stock, the Peterhof State Museum-Reserve, and the Pavlovsk State Museum-Preserve (well-known institutions), from the Russian National Museum (Moscow), the Museum of Christian Culture (Saint Petersburg), and the Fabergé Museum in Baden-Baden. The last three are relatively unknown to both Russian and most international visitors.

The Russian National Museum was the first private museum in Russia, which opened its doors to the public in 1993. After the closure of the museum in 2008, the collection was moved to the Fabergé Museum in Baden-Baden, inaugurated in 2009. The third one – the Museum of Christian Culture – is in Saint-Petersburg, and doesn’t provide any information about the Fabergé pieces in its collection on the website.

The display of the Hermitage exhibition contains plenty of items from different categories: pieces of jewelry, objets dе fantasiе, imperial gifts for various occasions, stone miniatures, etc. Some Imperial Eggs, the most desirable and expensive Fabergé pieces, are on display as well.

Among them lays the “Imperial Easter Egg with a surprise in the form of a hen”– the first piece of the Imperial Eggs series, the one that originated the tradition, as the announcement of the exhibition on the official Hermitage website says.

Strangely enough, this egg, which comes from the Museum of Christian Culture, is dated “before 1898”. However, we know the exact year when the Hen was presented by Alexander III to Maria Fedorovna – it was 1885.

Also, before the Hermitage exhibition, only one “hen egg” existed –the First Hen egg, the one in the permanent collection of Fabergé Museum in Saint Petersburg. This egg came from the Malcolm Forbs collection, which in 2004 was entirely bought by Russian interpreter Victor Vekselberg at Sotheby’s. It is permanently exhibited in the Fabergé Museum in Saint Petersburg, together with other 8 Imperial Eggs from the ex-Forbs collection. These two hen eggs are very similar, except for few elements, and level of detail. I asked Mark Evans (Managing Director of Bentley & Skinner, a connoisseur of antique jewelry with specialist knowledge of Fabergé and gemstones) if it was possible that Fabergé produced similar Imperial Eggs, and the answer was: “that has never been registered yet”. “The principle idea of Easter Eggs was to surprise” – he concluded. Thus, one of the Hens isn’t original or it’s an extraordinary case of almost twin Imperial Eggs. If so, to whom the Hen from the Museum of Christian Culture was presented, and when?

Another mysterious piece is the “Wedding Anniversary Imperial Easter Egg on a Stand with a Surprise in the Form of a Basket of Wildflowers”, dated 1904. At the same time, in the exhibition announcement on the Hermitage website, this egg is being attributed as a gift “to mark various occasions in the life of the imperial family”, not an Easter present.

It comes from the collection of the Fabergé Museum in Baden-Baden. Before the Hermitage exhibition, it had already been shown to the Russian public at least once, in 2018 at the exhibition “Fabergé Style. Excellence Beyond Time” at the Museum and Exhibition complex “New Jerusalem” in Istra (Moscow Region) next to Fabergé pieces from other collections, including the Hermitage ones.

If the Wedding Anniversary Egg is authentic, it should be considered a sensation. A well-known and generally accepted fact is that during the Russian-Japanese war of 1904-1905 no Fabergé Eggs were given for Easter. This confirms Marina Lopato (Head of the Sector of Artistic Metal and Stone of the Department of Western European Applied Art of the State Hermitage) in her dissertation for the degree of Doctor of Art History (2006). Ironically, Marina Lopato was the curator of the Hermitage exhibition. Unfortunately, she passed away several months before the exhibition began.

The owner of the Wedding Anniversary Egg claims that Fabergé Eggs were presented during the war, but it wasn’t announced so as not to annoy people during hard times. He also added that since one Imperial Egg took craftsmen one year to be produced, then the Eggs for Easter of 1904 (commissioned in 1903), must have been ready for the holiday – and were presented. This makes sense.

Valentin Skurlov (jewelry historian, Fabergé expert) confirms that Eggs for Easter 1904 had been commissioned a year in advance and were ready to be presented in time. Those, he writes, were the Moscow Kremlin egg for Alexandra Fedorovna (currently held in Kremlin Armoury Museum collection in Moscow) and the Swan Egg for Maria Fedorovna (held in Edouard and Maurice Sandoz Foundation in Lausanne, Switzerland). Both were given after the war, in 1906.

If the Wedding Anniversary is the original Imperial Fabergé Egg, it means that Nicholas II commissioned 3 eggs for the 1904 Easter, in 1903.

Moreover, the design of the Wedding Anniversary reminds a lot of the Fifteenth Anniversary Egg, dated 1911 (from Forbs/Vekselberg collection, now in the Fabergé Museum in Saint Petersburg). If we assume that the ‘Wedding Anniversary’ is an authentic Fabergé piece, which was secretly presented in 1904, then Fabergé for some unexplainable reason created another very similar egg for Easter 1911.

Another source of bewilderment in the Wedding Anniversary is the enamel portraits of the Emperors’ daughters. These portraits were copied from photos taken after 1903, as an American researcher DeeAnn Hoff claims, according to the article of Ruzhnikov (I couldn’t find the text by Hoff). She admits an error in the enamel portrait of Nicholas II, precisely in his uniform. Obviously, there is very little chance that the Fabergé masters would make such a mistake.

The next showpiece, which aroused the suspicion of experts is the stone-carved Figure of a Soldier. The Soldier from the Hermitage exhibition has an almost-twin brother in the Fersman Mineralogical Museum (Moscow). Even if we allow a possibility of repetition, which theoretically might have taken place with stone miniatures (as Mark Evans presumes), the Hermitage Soldier is a surprisingly poorly done one. The choice of materials in the Hermitage figure doesn’t make much sense, especially in comparison with the one from the Mineralogical Museum. Another weak point of the Hermitage one is scarce detailing, which together with a non-sense combination of materials leads to the next point – the lack of character.

As Mark Evans admits, the presence of personality was a ‘must’ in all the Fabergé stone figures, may they be figures of humans or a mouse. This note, which might seem very subjective, mustn’t be ignored when we talk about art. Pavel Plechov, the director of the Fersman Mineralogical Museum (Moscow) expressed his doubts about the authenticity of the Soldier in the Hermitage, too.

There are plenty of other exhibits which raise doubts among experts, but this article aims to describe the context, surrounding the case and the persons involved.

The first to openly accuse the director of the Hermitage, Mikhail Piotrovsky, of displaying fake pieces was Andre Ruzhnikov – an experienced art collector and Fabergé scholar from London. The Hermitage neither replied to it nor clarified any arguments. The only comment from the museum about the situation was a quote from the opening word from the exhibition catalog: “the authenticity of each fresh item that appears on the market can always be challenged and disputed… the consensus of the expert community is not easy to obtain.”

Makes sense, especially if “fresh items” are attributed to Fabergé. Though, no conferences with experts from the Fabergé Museum (Saint Petersburg) or the Fersman Mineralogical Museum, or any other experts were organized. Dubious exhibits are attributing to Fabergé in the released catalog. Thanks to the attention of the professional society to the scandal, the Hermitage sent several pieces to expertise and, for some reason, added to the exhibition two displays with Fabergé fakes from the stocks – all of these happened a month before the exhibition ended, even though scholars started expressing their doubts before it began and during it.

Important Russian Fabergé experts keep silent. This, together with the absence of thoughtful comments or refutations from the Hermitage, might make one think of the special status of owners of the mysterious pieces.

The owner of the Fabergé Museum in Baden-Baden and the National Russian Museum is Alexander Ivanov. He is introduced as “an Honoured Worker in the Arts, a professor, a member of the UNESCO Special Commission for the Preservation of the World’s Cultural Heritage and an expert for the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation” on the Hermitage website. Ruzhnikov disproves all of it. In November 2007 Mr.Ivanov bought the Fabergé Rothschild Egg at Christie’s (US$18.5 million). In 2014 Vladimir Putin presented this egg to the Hermitage to mark the 250th birthday of the museum. Ivanov also applied for the purchase of the Forbs collection, which Vekselberg bought (more than US$90 million). It’s hard to find any certain information about Mr.Ivanov and the provenance of his impressive wealth.

The owner of the Museum of Christian Culture (Saint-Petersburg) is Konstantin Goloshapov, also known as “Masseur of Putin”; he is also the founder of “Russian Athos society” (with no website). Mr.Goloshapov was a co-owner of SMP Bank, together with brothers Arkady and Boris Rotenberg. Since Mr.Goloshapov is an extremely secretive person, I’d add a couple of facts about his ex-business partners. Rotenberg brothers are close friends of Vladimir Putin, the owners of SGM Group, and often presented as heroes in the Alexey Navalnys’ investigations related to corruption. Both brothers are in the US Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List.

It won’t be an exaggeration to say that in modern Russia closeness to the Kremlin of eggs-owners might be the key-detail in this story. This fact could be explanatory of Russian experts remaining silent in this ordeal.

It’s enough to have a relatively superficial knowledge of Fabergé’s heritage to doubt the authenticity of certain exhibits at the Hermitage exhibition. It’s hard to believe that nobody among highly qualified professionals of the Hermitage suspected anything. Strangely, such an important museum ignored warnings from external experts a long time before the exhibition opened.

Instead of organizing a vast public discussion with experts and proper expertise (which actually must have taken place before the exhibition and before printing catalogs), we see the attempts to turn the discourse into a personal kind of conflict between Ruzhnikov and Ivanov, or Ruzhnikov and Piotrovsky. Considering all the above-mentioned facts, it seems to be a try to move the focus away from the essential point.

Today, March 15th, 2021 is the last day of the exhibition “Fabergé: Jeweler to the Imperial Court”, but not the day to put an end to this situation. While the results of the verification of the authenticity of the exhibits have not yet been provided, Ivanov has already announced that he is suing Ruzhnikov for false accusations. He appears to be unquestionably sure of the pieces’ authenticity from his collection, without needing any validation or proof. 

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