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Newly discovered Imperial Fabergé Easter egg: A critical note from a Fabergé collector
An employee of Antique dealers Wartski poses with a Faberge Egg in London on April 7, 2014. One of the eight missing imperial Faberge eggs has gone on show in London after it was purchased by a scrap metal dealer in a flea market in the United States. London antique dealer Wartski said the man bought the egg a few years ago for about $14,000, completely unaware that it was worth about $33 million (24 million euros). AFP PHOTO/ANDREW COWIE.

By: Michel Kamidian
Fabergé collector

PARIS.- Fabergé Easter eggs are one of the world's most famous art icons, not in the last place because of the exorbitant prices they fetch through auctions and private sales. The last egg that appeared at a public auction was the 1902 Rothschild egg. It was sold for $18 million in 2007, and this egg was not even Imperial (not commissioned by the Tsar). It is therefore not surprising that the news of the recent discovery of the long lost third Imperial Easter egg (1887) has spread like wild fire via the global and social media. The story behind the discovery is so fantastic that Kieran McCarthy of Wartski in London (the specialized shop where the egg will be displayed on April 14th) could only compare it to Indiana Jones finding the lost Ark.

The Indiana Jones of this adventure is an anonymous American scrap metal dealer who bought the egg at a bric-á-brac flea market for $14.000, arguing that if the piece would be melted down he could make a small profit. When trying to sell it he was told he had overestimated the value of his investment. Too stubborn to take a loss, he held on to it. Ten years later Mr Jones decided to look into his bric-à-brac bargain and googled the words "egg" and "Vacheron Constantin" (the famous clock maker that has made and signed the time piece that is hidden surprise inside the egg). The search results led him to an illustrated article published by the Telegraph titled 'Is this £20 million nest-egg on your mantelpiece?'.

It is hard to imagine why it took Mr Jones ten years to investigate his prized possession which concept and design clearly resemble one of the world's most recognized art icons. Show anyone a jeweled egg with a surprise inside and they will tell you it might be by Fabergé. But grand discoveries in the art world are often paired with permeable provenances, and if it turns out that the piece is indeed the original 1887 Imperial Easter egg, it would be a tremendous contribution to Russia's historical and cultural heritage. The real problem lies much deeper than the egg's provenance.

The Wartski store has received much press coverage owing to the discovery of the egg, but besides from opening the door to Mr Jones who showed them the photos, they had little to do with it. It was in fact a 1964 catalogue, discovered in 2011, in which the 1887 Imperial Easter egg was featured (including a photograph) that led to the article in the Telegraph that was found by Mr Jones.

Instead of celebrating Wartski, the art world should ask itself how the egg could have been missed in the first place. The egg, which was featured on the same auction catalogue page as a Fabergé cigarette case (!), was somehow ignored by all the in-house and consulted experts of one of the biggest auction houses in the world.. Ironically the auction took place just before Easter. Missing an Imperial egg is one thing, but over the last decades those who call themselves experts or connoisseurs here in Europe and the USA have seriously damaged Fabergé's legacy by misattributing Easter eggs and causing auction scandals.

At the time of the auction, in 1964, Wartski was already famous for its Fabergé stock. Founder of Wartski, Mr Emanuel Snowman, went on buying trips to Russia where he bought Easter eggs and other items that were confiscated by the Soviets. One of the many Imperial eggs that was brought to Europe is the 1901 'Basket of Wild Flowers'. In 1953, Snowman's son and successor Mr Kenneth Snowman (who in his time as owner of Wartski was considered to be the Fabergé expert) suddenly decided that the Imperial egg was not by Fabergé but by the French Jeweler Boucheron.1 It was rectified only much later by Russian Fabergé scholar Valentin Skurlov. In 1976 Kenneth Snowman boosted the sale of the alleged 'last' Imperial Easter egg (coined the 1917 Twilight or Night egg) by stating in the auction catalogue that it would be featured in his upcoming exhibition in the Victoria and Albert museum in London.2 It was sold and indeed exhibited at the exhibition, but turned out be fake. In 1985 Snowman stopped the sale of an alleged Imperial Easter egg, the 1913 'Nicholas II Equestrian egg', on the evening of the auction at Christie's, because he believed it was a fake. It was presented as the only Easter egg commissioned by the Tsarina, to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the House of Romanov. Strangely enough, Snowman himself had vouched for the egg when it was sold through Christie's to Mr Eksander Aryeh in 1977 by stating: "I confirm, without hesitation, that this is undoubtedly an authentic work by Fabergé". The egg turned out to be fake and Mr Areyh sued Christie's for $37 million; the case was settled outside of court.3 Recognized Fabergé expert and protégé of Snowman, Mr Geza von Habsburg, was the in-house Christie's auction expert during both of the incidents. 4

The roles and agendas of experts with the moral authority to authenticate or dismiss artworks have been a controversial issue ever since art became a commodity. It has been wonderfully deconstructed by scholar Henk Tromp in 'A Real van Gogh: How the Art World Struggles with the Truth'. Unlike medical specialists, lawyers, and accountants, art experts have no organization of their own to admit persons to their profession by legal means. It is only in the art world that the sheer conflicts of interest caused by the many different roles that experts play in the market (auction consultant, dealer, private collector, curator ect...) remain completely accepted and unquestioned by the vast majority of the people. Whoever believes, or hopes, that these are issues of the past is, unfortunately, being naive. There are numerous examples from throughout the art world that have made the headlines the past years. In 'Leonardo's Lost Princess' Peter Silverman has written a fascinating account of his fight against the established art experts over a newly discovered Leonardo da Vinci. The documentary 'Who the f*#% is Jackson Pollock' (available on Youtube), provides a intriguing insight into the corrupted world of contemporary art.

I was not yet a collector in 1964 when the newly discovered third Imperial Easter egg was up for sale at the Park-Bennet auction, but I was in 1991 when I attended a Sotheby's auction in Geneva. It was the same scenario; an obvious Fabergé egg was missed by all the auction experts, and catalogued as 'in the style of Fabergé'. I bought the 1893 'Bouquet of Yellow Lilies Clock-egg' and it starred in the 1992 'Fabolous Epoch of Fabergé' exhibition in Saint-Petersburg and later in the 2000 'Fabergé; Imperial Craftsman and his World Exhibition' in the USA. During the latter, the egg was broken by a staff member hired by the exhibition organizers. It resulted in a trial that started out as an insurance case (the clock-egg was insured by the exhibition for $2.5 million) but ended in a dispute over the clock-egg's authenticity. Against all odds the curators of the exhibition, Mr Geza von Habsburg and Mr Solodkoff, testified for the insurance company and had suddenly changed their minds about the authorship of the clock-egg, stating it was not by Fabergé. The judge followed them even though Tatiana Fabergé and Valentin Skurlov (the authors of the 1994 standard work for Imperial Easter eggs, 'The Fabergé Imperial Easter Eggs' published by Christie's) came to court and testified in favor of the clock-egg. I lost both the case and the egg. Many newspapers reporting on the verdict quoted the judge when he stated that "it was very unlikely that Mr Kamidian can really have thought in 1991 that he knew better than the experts at Sotheby's." 5 6

Exciting as it may be, the newly discovered third Imperial egg has proven again that it is in fact very likely that art experts mess up. They should not be trusted blindly, but instead ought to be scrutinized as their often questionable contributions, either driven by incompetence or agenda, can cause serious damage to precious art heritage.


1 Kenneth Snowman (1953), The Art of Carl Fabergé.
2 Christie’s Geneva auction catalogue of 10 November 1976.
3 The New York Times, Owner of ‘Faberge’ Egg Is Suing Christie’s, 16 January 1986.
4 Von Habsburg refers to Mr Kenneth Snowman as his mentor in his 1994 article ‘Fauxbergé’ published in Art & Auction, Vol.16, pages: 76-79.
5 http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2008/jun/28/art
6 For more information about the 1893 Bouquet of Yellow Lilies Clok-egg and the court case, see http://www.faberge.ch/blog/2013/08/27/russian-art-in-danger-faberge-in-the-epicentre-of-international-plot-english-version/#more-34





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