Absolutely Fabergé: Exquisite creations get rare showing

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A hundred of Imperial Russia's most dazzling masterpieces are to be exhibited at Buckingham Palace

The Duchess of Cambridge's wedding dress was supposed to be the star attraction when the Buckingham Palace State Rooms open to the public next week.

That creation will be outshone, though, by 100 masterpieces from the world's finest collection of Fabergé, as the Royal Family shares its fascination with a jewellery brand famed for its exquisite design and craftsmanship.

Dazzling Imperial Eggs, cigarette cases, animal sculptures and desk clocks, collected by six generations of family members from Queen Victoria to the Prince of Wales, will be placed on display in the Royal Fabergé collection.

The British Royal Family's passion for Fabergé was sparked by their dynastic links with the doomed Romanovs, who commissioned Peter Carl Fabergé to produce eggs for Russia's rulers from 1885 until the Bolshevik revolution in 1917.

The prized item in the Buckingham Palace exhibition is the 1914 Mosaic Imperial Egg, originally Tsar Nicholas II's Easter gift to his wife in 1914. It was confiscated during the Revolution and purchased by King George V in 1933, at a London jeweller's called Cameo Corner, at "half-price" for £250.

Made from tiny cut emeralds, rubies and diamonds, the egg includes portraits of the five children of Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra.

Caroline De Guitaut, curator of the Royal Collection, said: "It's an extraordinary piece of work because the tiny diamonds and rubies are fitted into a cut platinum mesh."

The exhibition also includes the 1910 Colonnade Egg, bought in 1944 to cheer up Queen Elizabeth's wartime shelter room at Buckingham Palace.

Ms De Guitaut said: "Fabergé has become a popular phenomenon because of the extraordinary technical expertise of the works, which has never been replicated, with the abrupt downfall of the Romanov dynasty adding extra allure. It's an exciting proposition for the Royal Collection."

Today's Windsors have been priced out of the market for Fabergé, which has suffered a tortuous history since Carl Fabergé's workshop was nationalised and its stock confiscated in 1918. At its peak, Fabergé's business employed 500 of the best jewellers, stone-cutters and craftsmen. The first of the 50 legendary Imperial Faberge Eggs was the Hen Egg of 1885, with the Steel Military Egg of 1916 being the last completed.

However Fabergé's Eggs for the Tsar were a loss-leader for his real business, producing expensive gifts for a new class of nouveau riche, Russian millionaires. His workshop produced 155,000 individual pieces but each was unique as Fabergé vowed never to repeat himself.

After the revolution, the Fabergé family lost control over the company name, which was acquired by a US toiletries company in 1964. The Fabergé name suffered the indignity of being used to sell Brut deodorant.

The brand has now been revived as a luxury jeweller with the family's co-operation, selling necklaces with precious stones for up to $7 million.

But its most valuable Imperial works are the subject of a bidding war between modern-day Tsars, who want to return Fabergé's eggs to mother Russia.

Viktor Vekselberg, a Russian-based, Ukraine-born oligarch, is now the biggest individual owner of eggs, with 15, having paid $100 million to buy nine from Malcolm Forbes, the publishing billionaire.

According to court papers, Vekselberg had intended to give the entire Fabergé brand to his wife as a Christmas present. He is in dispute with Brian Gilbertson, a South African mining mogul, who bought Fabergé four years ago.

Gilbertson has opened new Fabergé stores and said he hopes to restore the brand to its former glory. He has announced the creation of 12 new unique pendant eggs costing up to £375,000 each and hopes to turn the jeweller into a $1 billion business.

Gilbertson faces competition from another Russian, Alexander Ivanov, 49, who now owns the world's largest Fabergé jewellery collection, worth an estimated £1.2 billion.

Ivanov placed his collection on display in Baden Baden, Germany, at his own "Fabergé Museum". That prompted legal action from Gilbertson's company, which accused Ivanov of breaching the Fabergé copyright.

The Royal Fabergé exhibition, which opens on July 23, includes pieces acquired during the reign of the current Queen, including a clock that she bought in the 1950s and a crystal inkwell presented to then Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh at their 1947 wedding.

The Prince of Wales has includeda gift from his 1981 wedding to Diana, Princess of Wales and a letter opener fashioned as a silver oar.

Alexander Ivanov

There are fears that the priceless Fabergé collection may not be entirely safe in Alexander Ivanov's hands. The Onassis Buddha, snapped up by the billionaire art collector for £1.6m, was broken after a fall in Ivanov's Fabergé Museum in Baden-Baden, Germany. The statue, once owned by the Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis, lost one of its hands.

In 2007 Ivanov, who made his fortune importing televisions to Russia, bought for £9m the 1902 Fabergé egg made as an engagement gift to Baron Edouard de Rothschild, at Christie's in London.

The gold-and-pink enamel egg features a clock and a diamond-set cockerel that flaps its wings on the hour.

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