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science

The gilded egg hunt

The most elaborate Easter eggs ever created come from the Fabergé workshop. Throughout history, they have been smuggled, seized, stolen and sold for millions. Seven, however, have been missing for decades.

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By Friederike von Polenz
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A daring escape

It’s 1918, and the Romanov dynasty is about to meet its end. With the Russian Revolution well underway, these are exceptional times. Bolsheviks are looting Romanov palaces. Among the confiscated treasures of the tsars are some unusual boxes later known worldwide as Fabergé eggs. Maria Feodorovna, the tsar’s mother, flees and survives the carnage, perhaps taking some of the eggs with her. She will never know the myths the world creates around these objects after her passing.

The Fabergé family

St. Petersburg, Russia, 1842. Gustav Fabergé opens a jewelry shop. Years later, his son Peter Carl inherits the shop, ambitiously determined to make the name “Fabergé” synonymous with expertise and perfection befitting his upper-class clientele.

Soon, the brand gains the attention of the royal Romanov family. As a special gift for Easter, Alexander III demands a beautiful egg for his wife. This special commission would define Peter Carl’s career.

An Easter tradition

Tsar Alexander III entrusts Fabergé with his first commission in 1885. The first Hen Egg for Maria Feodorovna starts an annual tradition. Maria continues to receive a small jeweled egg every Easter until her husband dies, 10 years later.

First Hen Egg from 1885, 6.4 cm

The legacy continues

After Alexander’s death in 1894, his son Nicholas II assumes the role of tsar. He continues the Easter tradition, but adds his wife, Alexandra, as a second egg recipient. Each year, Nicholas presents two eggs: one for Maria, and another for Alexandra. In total, Fabergé produces 52 eggs for the imperial Romanov family.

Maria’s mystery

Through the public’s persistent fascination, most of the 52 imperial Fabergé eggs have been rediscovered. But seven of the eggs originally given to Maria remain lost in time, subjects of an ongoing international treasure hunt.

Finding a Fabergé

Third Imperial Egg from 1887, 8.2 cm, photo of 1964
In 2011, Fabergé researchers discover a photo of the Third Imperial Egg taken for an 1960s auction and post it online.

Later, a story emerges: a scrap metal dealer in the United States has been sitting on the egg for years after picking it up at an antiques market, unable to sell it for more than the $13,302 he paid. Desperate to recoup his funds, he searches the internet for an egg and the watch’s maker and finds a 2011 Telegraph article with photo and description. The metal dealer contacts the London Fabergé expert quoted in the article who travels to the US to identify the egg.

It was sold at private auction in 2014 for untold millions. Now, only seven lost eggs remain!

Visual clues

Some documentation by Fabergé and photographs taken at later auctions still exist as references for two of the seven lost eggs.

The 1903 Royal Danish Egg (left) is approximately 27–28 cm tall.

The 1909 Commemorative Egg (right) is estimated at 9–10 cm.

Mining the details

Combing through photos from old public exhibitions, dedicated Fabergé hunters try to spot objects that could be the elusive eggs. Enlarging those images allows one to see the egg in detail.

Nécessaire Egg from 1889 (left). This enlarged section of a photo from an exhibition by Wartski in 1949 shows the Nécessaire Egg. It was sold anonymously.

A sketch by Fabergé expert Anna Palmade of the Cherub with Chariot Egg from 1888 (right) is based on a photo enlargement from 1902.

Hard to crack mystery eggs

There are no surviving images of three of the lost eggs. Two can be identified by written descriptions that come from the Fabergé workshops or later auctions.

  1. “Egg in gold mount on two columns from nephrite, inside portraits Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna and Prince P.A. Oldenburg.”
    This description from a 1917 list about Maria’s personal belongings (origin still questioned), was rediscovered in 2015, reheating discussion about the Empire Nephirte Egg, 1905.

  2. “Hen picking a sapphire egg out of a basket (including a sapphire - 1800 r.) 2986 r [rubles].”
    This description references the Hen Egg with sapphire pendant, 1886, a mystery basket from which the egg is plucked.

  3. Mauve Egg, 1897.
    There is no mention of this egg in the 1917 or 1922 inventories of confiscated imperial treasure, meaning there is no surviving description of this egg at all; it is possible Maria escaped with the egg herself.

First the egg, then the chicken

Like the ubiquitous Russian nesting dolls, Fabergé eggs designs uncover a tiny treasure by peeling away ornate layers. The original creation, the First Hen Egg, reveals a gold yolk containing a gold hen. Within is a replica of the imperial crown and a ruby pendant. All eggs follow the same structure to reveal different surprises.

Secret surprise

Fabergé spent each year crafting a surprise inside the egg, known not even to the tsar. Like a time capsule, each surprise referenced an event in the life of the Romanov family.

Size matters

The spectrum of shapes and sizes of all 45 recovered Fabergé eggs shows the thoughtful, unique crafting of each one.

Whereabouts today

Since reappearing after the revolution, the eggs have traveled the world to public museums and private collections. The greatest number of eggs have landed in Russia and the United States, at institutions including:

  • Kremlin Armoury Museum, Moscow
  • Fabergé Museum, St. Petersburg
  • Fersman Mineralogical Museum, Moscow
  • Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD
  • Lillian Thomas Pratt Collection, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA
  • Matilda Geddings Gray Foundation Collection, Metropolitan Art Museum, New York City, NY
  • Marjorie Merriweather Post Collection, Hillwood Museum, Washington, DC
  • Dorothy and Artie McFerrin Collection, Houston Museum of Natural Science, Houston, TX
  • India Early Minshall Collection, Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, OH

Other known locations of Fabergé

  • Fabergé Museum, Baden-Baden, Germany
  • Royal Collection, London, UK
  • Edouard and Maurice Sandoz Foundation, Lausanne, Switzerland
  • Prince Albert II of Monaco Collection, Monte Carlo, Monaco
  • Qatar Authority of Museums

One of the two eggs marked with a star (*) must be a copy or a former model of the unfinished Fabergé egg from 1917. Both owners claim to own the one and only original.

Competing Collectors

Private owners of Fabergé eggs are as wealthy and illustrious as you might expect.

Viktor Vekselberg, private owner of the Fabergé Museum in St. Petersburg, holds the most imperial eggs of any individual in the world.

Queen Elizabeth II of England, related to the Romanovs through Alexandra (von Hessen-Darmstadt), is not only a curious collector, but also perhaps a rightful heir.

Prince Albert II of Monaco inherited his Fabergé egg from his father.

Alexander Ivanov, founder of the Baden-Baden Fabergé Museum, claims to have the last two unfinished eggs.

Imperial impostor

Fabergé’s final egg for Alexandra, the Blue Tsarevich Constellation Egg, was never presented publicly, allowing for the manufacture of an imitation egg. Today, both the Fersman Mineralogical Museum in Moscow and the Fabergé Museum in Baden-Baden, Germany, claim to display the original.

Rewards are waiting

Scavengers and treasure-seekers are invited to search for the seven outstanding eggs from the collection. As tiny, rare gems with historical value as well as popular appeal, they could fetch millions at auction, like other rediscovered historical art and jewels. The hunt is on!

Sources

WintraeckenFabergé Research SiteFabergéAlexander PalaceArtnet NewsCNBCIrish Central• Annemieks Wintraecken, Christel McCanless (2013): Empress Maria Feodorovna’s Missing Faberge Easter Eggs In: Royal Russia Annual. No. 3 (Art. 7), Gilbert's Book

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