Russian billionaire feathers his Fabergé nest egg

Moscow's most prolific art collector is channelling his expensive obsession into an extraordinary museum.

By his standards, Alexander Ivanov had a quiet "Russian week" this year. He dropped a mere £2m last week, at the series of Russia-related art and antique sales held annually across London's top auction houses.

His most notable purchase was a 10-inch high clock made by the jeweller Fabergé, on which he splashed £385,000. But such sums are trifling in comparison to his 2007 trip to London for Russian week, when he made off with a Fabergé egg bought for £9m – described at the time as "cheap".

Mr Ivanov, perhaps the most prolific Russian art collector, keeps a low profile, but in a rare interview in Moscow he spoke about his collection and his long-standing passion for Fabergé, the imperial Russian jewellers best known for their remarkable gem-encrusted eggs.

Unlike most Russian art collectors, who have used vast fortunes built up elsewhere to fund their purchases, Mr Ivanov has made almost all of his cash by buying and selling antiques and artwork over the past two decades, amassing a collection in the process which he says is worth several billion pounds.

The culmination of his Fabergé obsession came earlier this year, when he opened a Fabergé Museum in the German spa town of Baden Baden – the first ever Russian-funded museum to open in the West. The museum has about 700 exhibits from the famous jeweller – featuring everything from the famous eggs to clocks, cigarette cases and vases.

The collection has taken some time to build up. Mr Ivanov, 49, served in the Soviet Navy for three years before going to university in Moscow, and he says he made his first money during the dying years of the Soviet Union, under Mikhail Gorbachev's restructuring of the Russian political and economic system, known as perestroika. Like many budding entrepreneurs, Mr Ivanov joined the Communist Youth League "co-operatives", and soon began spotting business opportunities. He started importing computers into Russia – old Amstrad 1640s – and selling them to Soviet factories at a huge mark-up. As business picked up, he started buying in bulk, and before long he had more money that he knew what to do with.

"I was living in a student dormitory and we were bringing all this money in that we literally couldn't do anything with," he recalls, sitting in his Moscow office, over tea served from a vast antique teapot and slices of bread smeared with caviar.

"I would have two or three large holdalls stuffed with dollars under the table at any one time. Property cost nothing back then, and there was nothing to buy in the shops, so I started to buy antiques."

He soon developed a passion for Fabergé, the jewellery workshop set up in St Petersburg in 1842. Fabergé was the official supplier to the Russian Imperial court from 1885 until the revolution in 1917, and in recent years prices for Fabergé items have rocketed as Russians began to snap them up in a patriotic nod to their country's heritage.

Much of Mr Ivanov's purchasing was done before the prices went sky high, but it continued after – he claims that their value can "only continue to go up and up". Whenever a Fabergé item came up at auction, Mr Ivanov was sure to be there bidding for it, whether it was a small lapel badge made for Tsarist officials, sold for a few hundred pounds, or an egg in the millions.

The centrepiece of his collection is the £9m egg, made in 1902, as an engagement gift to Baron Édouard de Rothschild, a member of the French banking dynasty. It is made from gold and pink enamel, and has a cockerel that pops out of the top and flaps its wings every half an hour. There is also a silver table clock, bought for Tsar Alexander III's silver wedding anniversary by members of his family. Made with over 20 kilograms of silver, it features 25 silver angels, one for each year of marriage. Elsewhere in the museum there are miniature bonsai trees with leaves crafted from gold and encrusted with hundreds of tiny diamonds, an ivory cigar cutter, a kangaroo wine decanter made from silver, and a jade Buddha, bought from the collection of Jackie Onassis.

He funds his collecting by selling artworks to Russia's rich and famous, usually at a huge profit. He has become an art dealer to the oligarchs, and claims that he always uses his own money to make purchases at auctions. "There's always a queue of people who want to buy things for me," he says. "If I've bought it, people know it's worth something. At auctions a lot of people wait to see what I'm making bids for and then they start competing with me." He says he has established special eye signals at most of the London auction houses so that other people can't see when he's bidding.

He has something of a rivalry going with Viktor Vekselberg, a Russian oil billionaire who has also taken an interest in Fabergé and managed to pick up nine of the prized eggs, compared to Mr Ivanov's three. Mr Vekselberg bought the eggs in 2004 from the collection of US publisher Malcolm Forbes, saying that he wanted to bring them back to Russia, but they have only been shown at temporary exhibitions. Although he has nine eggs, he has only about 300 Fabergé items in total, says Mr Ivanov, somewhat defensively. "It's a good collection. But it's not a museum."

While the Kremlin and the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg have major collections of Fabergé items, it does seem strange that a Russian collector would open up a museum abroad rather than at home, but Mr Ivanov says he has done so mainly to ensure peace of mind.

"It's very difficult here because of all the administrative barriers," he says. "You have to be indebted to someone, and you can never feel that your collection is safe – not from the state, not from bandits, not from anyone. In Germany we spend serious money on security of course, but at least you know that the state itself won't do anything."

Baden Baden is a town with a long Russian association. It was a favoured haunt of the Tsarist aristocracy, who came in their droves to bathe in the medicinal waters, and it was also frequented by writers including Ivan Turgenev, Nikolai Gogol and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. "Every Russian feels an association with Baden Baden, especially the literary heritage," says Sergei Avtonoshkin, the director of the museum.

The casino where Dostoyevsky ruined himself gambling is still open today, and the house he lived in is now home to an estate agent's office. The windows are full of signs in Russian for elite properties in the region, proof that since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the town has re-emerged as a favourite haunt of the Russian rich. Every restaurant and cafe has a Russian menu, and there are hundreds of thousands Russian tourists who visit every year.

Recently, says Mr Ivanov, a wealthy Arab sheikh was so impressed after visiting the museum that he offered €2bn to buy the whole collection. He claims to have no plans to sell, however. Quite the opposite – he has recently bought an adjacent building and is now seeking planning permission for a second museum, to house a collection of antique cars recently bought wholesale from two American museums that ran into financial difficulties earlier this year.

"What is €2bn? It's a lot of money, of course, but it's not the same as having a collection like I have," he says. "We're not selling."

The Fabergé story

* It all started with an egg. In 1885, the Russian Tsar Alexander III commissioned the jeweller Peter Carl Fabergé to create an Easter gift for his wife.

Known as the "Hen Egg", below, it contained a gold yolk, a miniature of the Imperial crown in diamonds, and a ruby pendant – tiny yet lavish surprises which characterised the 50 eggs that followed until the Russian Revolution in 1917. By then the eggs had become a symbol of decadence that mirrored Bolshevik feeling towards the royal family who were killed the following year.

Having produced more than 155,000 pieces, the House of Fabergé was nationalised and production ceased. The Fabergés fled to Switzerland where Peter Carl died in 1920. In 2009, the company was revived by an American hedge fund company, producing 100 pieces which sold for between £24,000 and £4.2m.

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