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Catherine the Great's silver dishes that survived melting down and revolution for sale at Bonhams
They are estimated at £30,000-50,000 for the pair. Photo: Bonhams.

LONDON.- Two spectacular silver vegetable dishes from dinner services used by the 18th century Russian Empress, Catherine the Great, are to be sold at Bonhams Fine Silver and Gold Boxes sale in London on 18 June. They are estimated at £30,000-50,000 for the pair. Bonhams, the third largest international fine art auction house, holds sales of Fine Silver in London and New York.

The vegetable dishes are among the survivors of the 22 silver table services ordered by Her Imperial Majesty for the new seats of regional government which she established in Russia. She wanted each centre of government to have a complete service of its own to avoid the need to transport silver from place to place during her tours of the country. Catherine ordered five services from Russian silversmiths but the others were commissioned from artisans in London, Augsburg and Paris. Four of the French-made services employed the talents of the greatest silversmith of the 18th century, Robert-Joseph Auguste. He was involved in sets for Moscow, Kazan, Nizhny-Novgorod and Ekaterinoslav, later known as Ekaterinburg where the Imperial Family was murdered in 1918.

The two vegetable dishes in the sale represent a mystery. Although they look perfectly matched, in fact the ornate covers are from the service made by Auguste for Moscow while the dishes themselves are from the Ekaterinoslav service made by one of his colleagues, Louis Lenhendrick. Exactly the same mismatch of dish and cover is found in the silver vegetable dishes from the same makers and services in the collection of the Louvre in Paris.

There are three plausible explanations for how this mix-up may have happened.

First, after Catherine’s death, in 1797, her successor Paul I had all 22 services sent to Moscow. It may be that in the inevitable confusion the covers became separated from their original dishes and then replaced incorrectly. This theory is supported by the numbering system used for these services which, unusually, does not seem to have been designed to keep specific bases and covers together.

Secondly, Emperor Paul had many of the pieces melted down for the value of the silver so it is equally possible that surviving lids and dishes were simply paired up as well as they could be.

Lastly, during the 1920s and ‘30s, the Soviet regime raised foreign currency by selling former Imperial possessions to collectors in the West. The mix-up could have taken place during this period.

The tale of these dishes has one further twist. It is almost certain that they were bought from the Soviets in the 1920s by one of the most celebrated dealers of the 20th century, Jacques Helft, who in 1929 sold them to the French banker Count Moïse Nissim de Camondo. The description of the pieces exactly matches the dishes in the sale. The Count sold them back to Helft the following year in exchange for tureens from Catherine’s Moscow service. On his death in 1935, De Camodo left his house and contents to the French state in honour of his son, Nissim, who had fallen for France in the First World War. Eight years later his remaining family – his daughter Beatrice, her husband and their two children were shipped off to Auschwitz where they were all murdered.

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