MOSCOW—Some longtime players on the Russian antiques market are saying that when oil-and-metals oligarch Viktor Vekselberg purchased Malcolm Forbes’ 180-piece Fabergé collection, he got stuck with at least one bad egg (see ANL, 2/17/04).
Vekselberg, known as the third-richest man in Russia, acquired the acclaimed collection last year for more than $100 million in a preauction bid negotiated with Sotheby’s. Russians waited in line for hours to see the eggs when they were exhibited at the Kremlin last spring.
Now one of the eggs has been attacked by Valentin Skurlov, a researcher and consultant on Fabergé for Christie’s Russian art division, and Tatiana Fabergé, the jeweler’s great-granddaughter, who have stated that the Spring Flowers Egg, purportedly made in the 1890s, is a fake. (Their article, in Russian, can be accessed on the Web site rnm.ru.)
The dispute stems from the mysterious early history of the egg. It turned up in the l960s in the important Fabergé collection of New York mining magnate Lansdell K. Christie and his wife, Helen, and was sold by the Christie estate to Forbes in 1966 through the Manhattan gallery A La Vieille Russie.
“We never really owned or bought or sold it,” Peter Schaffer, co-owner of the gallery, told ARTnewsletter. “We were the broker of the sale to Forbes. The Christie estate actually sold it to him. We exhibited it here once because Christie asked us to.” Schaffer says it was difficult for him to render an opinion of the egg since “we handled it for about five minutes, taking it out of a box and putting it into a case.”
Skurlov and other researchers asked questions a long time ago about the egg’s provenance. “There are major problems not only with the date of this egg but with who presented it and to whom,” wrote Will Lowes and Christel Ludewig McCanless in 2001 in their book, Fabergé Eggs: A Retrospective Encyclopedia.
They cited an earlier researcher, Tatiana Muntian, who believed the Spring Flowers Egg might have been given to the dowager empress Maria Fedorovna, mother of Czar Nicholas II, by other family members or friends.
“The egg was carefully reviewed by both Sotheby’s and outside experts prior to its sale last year, and at that time we saw no reason to question its authenticity,” Sotheby’s spokeswoman Diana Phillips told ARTnewsletter. “Despite Mr. Skurlov’s comments, we see no reason to question the egg’s attribution to Fabergé.”
The Spring Flowers Egg is enameled in red over an engraved gold ground and opens to reveal a “surprise”—a miniature basket of wood anemones resting on a circular gold plinth.
An official inventory of confiscated imperial treasures lists a “purse with gilded silver in the form of an egg, covered with red enamel, with a sapphire,” and previous scholars have identified the egg with that description. Skurlov contends that Vekselberg’s egg is made of gold and has no sapphire.
Skurlov also casts scorn on the workmanship of the egg. He claims the two halves are asymmetrical, which is not typical of Fabergé. Moreover, he says, the diamonds around the rim of the lower half of the egg are inferior and of different sizes, and the “quality of their attachment is very poor.”
The marks are also all wrong, Skurlov maintains. Both halves of Spring Flowers bear the assay mark “56,” denoting 14-karat gold, but they lack the other mark—a scepter and two anchors—that Fabergé always used as well. What’s more, he points out, the gold plinth that holds up the basket and the gold flower stalks lack the marks they should have.
Forbes was determined to own more imperial eggs—those given by an emperor to an empress—than the Kremlin. He was convinced that his new acquisition qualified, but it lost any claim to that status when documents found in the early 1990s in newly opened Russian archives revealed that the Spring Flowers Egg, along with two other Forbes treasures, was not imperial. Forbes, as it turned out, was the owner of merely nine imperials to the Kremlin’s ten.
Vekselberg Defends Authenticity
Vekselberg’s spokesman Andrei Shtorkh dismisses Skurlov’s charges. “The Spring Flowers Egg has been on the market for 40 years; and many Fabergé experts have had it in their hands, and no one has doubted its authenticity,” he told ARTnewsletter. “My point is, there are many documents that are full of mistakes and unreadable. You never hear of an antique with all its papers in order.”
Additionally, Shtorkh says, “the antiques market lives in an atmosphere of scandal. When we talk about Fabergé, the number of products is finite. Because of the Bolsheviks and our Revolution, certain Fabergé items were lost 30 to 50 years ago. The Fabergé eggs were described in detail before the Revolution, and the next records were created 50 years later. Some players on the market are using the weakness of these records to create their own story of Fabergé.”
He adds that Skurlov has never held Spring Flowers in his hands. “Many Fabergé experts have had Spring Flowers in their hands many times,” he adds. “We at this point have no profound grounds to do an expert evaluation of the eggs. We have the reputation of Forbes and Sotheby’s; this is enough for us.”
“The idea that I cannot examine the egg without holding it in my hands is a primitive point of view,” Skurlov told the newspaper Kommersant, noting he had seen the egg through glass five times. He stressed that Vekselberg’s preauction bid had unfortunately preempted the expert evaluation that would otherwise have taken place.
The controversy has not reduced interest in the collection, part of which will be on view in Berlin and in Brussels in the coming months before it is again shown in Russia.
Shtorkh has charged that Skurlov is attempting to cast doubt on the entire Vekselberg collection. Replies Skurlov: “I don’t think the counterfeit egg casts a shadow over the whole collection—but it is a bad apple.”