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Thursday, June 11, 2015

“Fabergé’s Eggs: The Extraordinary Story of the Masterpieces That Outlived an Empire”, by Toby Faber

320 pages, Random House, ISBN-13: 978-1400065509

This is one of those books that it is easy to say, “Why? What’s the point of a study of a series of decorative objects that, while beautiful in and of themselves, serve no greater purpose than to glorify a dead monarchy and destroyed system?” Well, I’ll tell ya: Fabergé’s Eggs: The Extraordinary Story of the Masterpieces That Outlived an Empire brings to life this dead monarchy and destroyed system in ways that mere histories or biographies cannot, as the point of Toby Faber’s fascinating study is not the sparkle of these splendid (and somewhat preposterous) baubles, but the history behind them. He has, in many cases, told the stories of individual eggs and positioned them within the history of the last years of the Russian Empire before following them from the revolution to the present day. This, then, is a history book with a wide scope, using the eggs as a mere foundation for bigger themes that is full of remarkable stories from the royal family, as well as from the colorful subsequent owners of the eggs.

It all began in 1881 when Tsar Alexander III came to the House of Fabergé to commission a present for his wife, the Empress Maria Feodorovna; the result was the first egg, the Hen Egg, based on the design of an egg in the Royal Danish Collection (as Maria was born Princess Marie Sophie Frederikke Dagmar of Denmark, it was thought that such an object would remind her of her happy childhood there). Since then the eggs became an annual tradition, and each year Fabergé had more freedom about how to execute the commission; any worries he might have had of Nicholas II discontinuing the new imperial tradition were for naught as the new Tsar proved unwilling to change much of anything – a fatal trait, as Faber shows – and continued the tradition, with Easter eggs going not just to his mother but to his new wife, Alexandra, as well.

No two eggs were alike, and often reflected historical landmarks, anniversaries, or grand events in the Empire, such as the Trans-Siberian Railway Egg of 1900 that commemorated the newly-completed railway. Fabergé knew that he could please always please Alexandra with depictions of her children, and the famous Lilies of the Valley Egg of 1898 had a surprise of pop-out portraits of her husband and daughters. Faber demonstrates that the eggs could represent the alienation of the royals from the world around them and he contrasts these expensive and beautiful toys with the lot of the Russian people in order to increase our understanding of the revolution that brought the family down in 1918. After that, the new Soviet state, desperate for foreign cash from the capitalists to keep its communist system afloat, made the eggs available for sale abroad, where they were scattered like so much chaff in the wind (Malcolm Forbes collected quite a few – only to have his sons sell them to some Russian neotycoon, while Lillian Thomas Pratt, the wife of a GM executive, likewise acquired a fair amount).

As Faber points out, though, there is a kind of symmetry of the eggs ordered by the super-rich Tsar now being acquired and brought back to Russia by the Tsar’s super-rich oligarch successors. This is a fine history that tells a great deal more about characters and events than it does about mere ostentatious and whimsical jewelry.

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