Absolutely Faberge value

Original examples are available at surprisingly modest prices, John Andrew discovers
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The Independent Online
FABERG. The very name conjures up images of opulence and elaborately jewelled Easter eggs. Last November, Christie's sold the Winter Egg, made in 1913 for Tsar Nicholas II as a gift for his mother. Crafted from rock crystal and encrusted with more than 3,000 diamonds, it contains a platinum basket filled with wood anemones carved from white agate. It was purchased by an American for pounds 3.56m and reputedly sold on to a Russian for pounds 4.86m.

However, there is far more to the works of Carl Faberge than Easter eggs. Visitors to the Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace have until 7 January next year to feast their eyes on 500 pieces of Faberge from the Royal Collection. There are hardstone animals, exquisite photograph frames, jewelled bell-pushes and desk sets, clocks, hardstone flower studies, boxes, cigarette cases, gold and enamel pencil-holders and, of course, jewellery.

The Royal Family's interest in the objects created by the House of Faberge started with the Danish Princess Alexandra. Her sister married the future Tsar Alexander III. The Romanovs already had a passion for Faberge creations. With the marriage of Princess Alexandra to the future Edward VII, our Royal Family also became patrons.

An interesting aspect of the exhibition catalogue is that the original cost of some of the pieces is revealed. In 1912, George V was paying 30 pence for miniature enamelled Easter eggs. The more costly items, such as gold enamelled cigarette cases, cost from pounds 75 to pounds 100. Faberge has always been exclusive, but, contrary to popular opinion, Faberge originals are affordable today.

Wartski's, the London-based international Faberge specialist, was asked for the price of the least expensive example in stock. Its spokesman would admit only to "low thousands". At Iconastas in London's Piccadilly Arcade, Christopher Martin was more forthcoming. A small two-coloured gold box in pristine condition was priced at pounds 2,250; a plain gold pendant photograph frame at pounds 1,250; and a silver christening set, in its magnificent black leather case, a mere pounds 750. This is a far cry from the millions for the Winter Egg. The fact of the matter is that the Imperial Easter eggs for which Faberge is so famous are not typical of the firm's productions. Carl Faberge described himself as an artist-jeweller, and his competitors, such as Tiffany and Cartier, as traders. He was more interested in design and superb workmanship than flawless, valuable stones.

Today, for under pounds 2,000, it is possible to buy a Faberge gold brooch set with a couple of diamonds, an enamel locket with a small single diamond, or a small decorative pendant. Of course, not all small items of Faberge sell at these levels. For example, in Geneva recently, Sotheby's sold a gold enamel photograph frame for pounds 9,735.

Sotheby's Haydn Williams, although noting that less Faberge was being offered at auction, said that certain items were not as expensive as people might think. For example, bell-pushes could be obtained from pounds 1,500 or so, while buckles cost from pounds 1,000 at auction. Anything connected with smoking was also relatively less expensive.

Certainly at Christie's sale in South Kensington in April, a Faberge 18 carat gold cigarette case with a single sapphire thumbpiece sold for pounds 3,375. In Geneva, Christie's sold an even better two-coloured gold example with a rose diamond thumbpiece for pounds 2,740. The crafts- manship of all Faberge cigarette cases is absolutely superb. They were the main collecting interest of George VI.

Examples of Faberge's enamel work also need not cost a fortune. On 20 June, in a general jewellery sale at Christie's, a blue enamelled sealing- wax case with an integral Vesta box sold for pounds 2,475.

Faberge silver can also be inexpensive. For example, Iconastas is offering half a dozen table knives and forks for pounds 1,200. The blades of the knives are engraved "Made for C Faberge, Chantrill & Co. Birmingham". Last month, Sotheby's sold a silver-mounted cut-glass vodka carafe for pounds 1,955 and a tea-glass holder for pounds 690 (all prices include the buyer's premium).

Is it worth buying original Faberge? Certainly it makes more financial sense than buying new items bearing the Faberge trademark. Victor Mayer GBHM & Co. has a licence to produce jewellery in the Faberge style. It retails at about the same price as original pieces. The Franklin Mint produces items branded House of Faberge which have no connection with the family. Theo Faberge, a grandson, designs limited editions for the St Petersburg Collection in the Burlington Arcade, but the items are costly "fancy goods" rather than objets d'art.

Carl Faberge is regarded as the greatest jeweller and goldsmith that ever lived, and if you buy something you genuinely like, you will have an object to treasure. Faberge's business was closed down by the Communists in 1917. The interest in his creations has been growing in recent decades, and there are no signs of the enthusiasm diminishing.

However, do take care. There are probably more fake miniature eggs than genuine on the market. Originals cost from pounds 1,500. Purchase from dealers you can trust and only at auction under guidance.

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