Faberge art shown in St. Petersburg

CZAR'S RICHES STILL GLITTER

June 18, 1993|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- The forgotten glory of imperial Russia glittered decadently once more yesterday as the first full-scale exhibit of Faberge art here since 1902 opened at the Winter Palace.

Jeweled eggs, sturgeon-shaped silver caviar dishes and other gold-laden and diamond-encrusted knickknacks created for the rich and famous were borrowed from European royalty and U.S. tycoons for the exhibition: "Faberge: Imperial Jeweler."

The wealth represented here staggers the imagination. The last Faberge Imperial Easter egg to go at auction was sold for $3.5 million in New York a year ago. The exhibition has eight of these eggs, which were produced for the czar every Easter.

Security was tight -- the policeman holding the Kalashnikov machine gun hardly relaxed for a moment.

Swept through the Winter Palace's Great Throne Room by a stream of 600 congratulatory luminaries invited to the opening ceremony was Joyce Lasky Reed, the Maryland woman who helped conceive the show.

Three years ago, Mrs. Reed, who developed a long-standing interest in Russia after working as an NBC correspondent in DTC Moscow some years ago, formed the Faberge Arts Foundation with her friend and fellow Russia-enthusiast Mary Ann Allin.

Their goal was a simple one -- to restore the building on a winding St. Petersburg street where Carl Faberge, jeweler to the czars, lived and worked. Many nights of little sleep later, that seemingly modest goal led to yesterday's opening.

The exhibition brought together a staggering collection of more than 350 objects.

A miniature of the imperial family's two royal crowns, scepter and orb -- made out of 4,000 tiny diamonds -- was contributed by the Hermitage Museum in the Winter Palace.

A gilded wine cooler the size of a wastebasket with elephant-handles climbing up the side was sent by the queen of Denmark.

A gold egg covered with pink enamel and entwined in lilies of the valley made of pearls and diamonds came from the Forbes magazine collection. When a pearl button is pushed, diamond-encircled portraits of Czar Nicholas II and two of his daughters pop out -- topped with a crown.

Queen Elizabeth II lent a clock-egg encased in ophitic columns with golden girls, representing Nicholas' daughters, sitting at the base.

The exhibition also brought three contributions from Baltimore's Walters Art Gallery -- two nephrite boxes set with diamonds and a jasper rhinoceros.

And it brought Gregory and Lisa Barnhill, also from Baltimore.

"Unbelievable," said Mr. Barnhill, who works for Alex. Brown & Sons in Baltimore, which is offering St. Petersburg some financial advice.

"The eggs! The assemblage!"

When Mrs. Reed, who lives in Chevy Chase, began thinking seriously about a Russian project five years ago, she knew only that the Russia emerging to the West through glasnost was tantalizing, and she wanted to get involved.

Her friend Mrs. Allin suggested Faberge. A foundation based in Washington and St. Petersburg was formed to save the Faberge building, which had been taken over by the St. Petersburg telephone exchange.

The first-floor shop now sells mostly mundane Russian jewelry and has a currency exchange in the middle of it.

The foundation says it is close to leasing the four-story building and hopes to make it into a museum with a rotating Faberge exhibit.

The exhibit will stay at the Hermitage until Aug. 15 and then open at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris Sept. 24 and at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in January.

Carl Faberge's dazzling pieces were largely created from the 1880s until 1917. In the 1920s and 1930s, many were sold to Western collectors by cash-strapped nobility and Bolsheviks raising hard currency.

Archduke Geza von Habsburg, co-curator, with Marina Lopato of the Hermitage, said about 150,000 pieces were turned out -- and perhaps 50,000 still exist.

"Many were lost in flight," he said. "People stuck them in their pockets and fled. A lot was destroyed. Many silver services were melted down for scrap."

Dr. von Habsburg said he remains as dazzled as the day in 1969 when he encountered his first Faberge.

Dr. von Habsburg, who was European chairman of Christie's for 20 years, became a Faberge specialist. Forty-four eggs created for the czar still exist, he said, with Forbes magazine owning the most at 12.

He said the most spectacular is the golden egg that opens to disclose a 4-inch replica of a great carriage built for Catherine the Great and used a century later, in 1896, by Czarina Alexandra to ride to her coronation.

The tiny carriage took 15 months to create and perfectly duplicates the larger-than-life original. The door handle, only a sixteenth of an inch, works perfectly. A little crown sits on top.

After seeing this and other exhibits in the giant Hermitage, once home to the czars, one American emerged slowly from a hall with more than 50 gilded columns, sated with splendor.

"Now I know why they had the revolution," he said.

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