Faberge eggs to return home

February 06, 2004|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- An American-owned collection of Faberge eggs, some of the world's priciest knickknacks, has been bought by a Russian businessman who pledges to bring them home -- to the delight of Russia's art world.

"We must all celebrate, because it's a wonderful event," Mikhail B. Piotrovsky, director of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, said yesterday in a telephone interview. "It's very important for the historical memory of Russia."

Nine of the gold-enameled and jewel-encrusted eggs, symbols of the doomed opulence of the czarist era, were sold along with 180 other Faberge artifacts Wednesday by the family of publishing magnate Malcolm Forbes. The price? A cool $100 million.

The purchaser was Russia's fourth-richest man, the 46-year-old aluminum and oil billionaire Viktor F. Vekselberg. He is one of the wealthiest but least-known of the so-called oligarchs, Russians who made vast fortunes buying former state enterprises at rock-bottom prices a decade ago.

Piotrovsky said the purchase marks a social watershed for post-Soviet Russia, where the affluent often splurge on extravagant lifestyles rather than fine art.

"It shows that Russian capitalists are as well-developed culturally, and as well-educated, as Western capitalists," he said.

It also, he said, may signal the return to Russia of more of the artworks seized by the Bolsheviks from private collections and sold to raise hard currency in the 1920s and 1930s.

Eventually, Piotrovsky hopes, these works will wind up on display in his museum -- either as outright gifts or on loan from private collections. "We're now developing a real system of having private collections" in Russia, he said.

The purchase came just 2 1/2 months before the celebrated Forbes collection was to go under the gavel at Sotheby's in New York. If the collection had been auctioned off, experts said, it might have been split up or withdrawn from public view.

The purchase of the collection by a nonprofit Russian foundation set up by Vekselberg promises to keep the collection together. And spokesmen say he plans to stage exhibits of the eggs and other decorative works across Russia.

The eggs will be shown, a spokesman told reporters, in St. Petersburg and Moscow, as well as the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg -- where Nicholas II and his family were taken by the revolutionary government before they were shot.

Still, the purchase is not necessarily a selfless gesture. As with most famous artwork, the value of the Forbes collection is likely to grow over time. And its acquisition comes at a time when Russia's billionaires are under pressure to justify their existence.

Since last summer, prosecutors have zealously pursued an investigation into the finances of Russia's richest man, the former Yukos Oil Co. chief executive Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky. The one-time political power broker, who challenged President Vladimir V. Putin's political power, has spent the past 3 1/2 months in jail awaiting trial on fraud and tax evasion charges.

Despite fears it might do so, the Kremlin has not launched a wider war on the oligarchs. But in a December speech, Putin advised Russia's billionaires to be more "socially responsible." And he said the government may raise taxes on oil and other natural resources -- the foundation on which most of Russia's mega-fortunes are built.

Judging by the reaction in the press, the Faberge purchase appears to have generated goodwill for Vekselberg. "Bringing the collection back is a noble act," Vladimir Gusev, director of St. Petersburg's Russian Museum, told the government-controlled RIA Novosti news agency.

Poverty amid growth

Despite four years of rapid economic growth, tens of millions of Russians still live in crushing poverty. The average wage is only about $185 a month and raggedly dressed pensioners hawk toothbrushes and cheap shawls on street corners.

"In a country like Russia today, there are many more reasonable ways to demonstrate `social responsibility' than by buying precious Easter eggs, which society does without and can continue to do without," wrote Nikolai Rudenski, in a commentary printed in the Russian daily Internet newspaper, grani.ru.

According to Forbes magazine, Vekselberg has a fortune estimated at $2.5 billion. He is a chairman of Siberian-Urals Aluminum, one of the world's largest producers of the metal.

And he serves as chief operating officer of Tyumen Oil Co., Russia's third-largest oil company and the eighth-largest in the world in terms of oil production. The company was formed last year after the merger of a Russian company with BP, the British oil giant.

Born in Ukraine, the scholarly Vekselberg holds an honors doctorate in mathematics from the Moscow Institute of Railroad Engineering and worked for more than a decade as a researcher in Moscow's Institute of Advanced Pneumatics.

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