The romance of the stones

Moved about, sold off, even misplaced, the Russian crown jewels have had it hard.

Geraldine Norman
Saturday 05 April 1997 23:02 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


The Hunt is now on for the Russian crown jewels. Beginning with a sale at Christie's in 1927, and continuing with private deals which stretched up to 1936, the Soviet government sold off roughly two-thirds of the jewels and regalia which had been kept in the Diamond Room of the Imperial Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. Stalin, in need of tractors and machine tools, mercilessly ransacked every storeroom for goods that could be sold in the West at this time - including food desperately needed by his starving population, treasures of the Hermitage and other museums, and imperial diamonds.

Now the Director of the Diamond Fund of the Russian Federation, Victor Nikitin, dreams of tracking down all the jewels, re-photographing them and producing a lavish colour catalogue of the original collection. Black and white photographs of the pieces exist, taken for a catalogue published in 1924, before the sales began. This was a wonderfully ritzy production for its time. The photographs, interleaved with tissue paper, were not bound in with the text, but tied up in a folder with ribbons. The catalogue now sells for around pounds 10,000-pounds 15,000 - if you can find it - and a limited edition reprint is planned.

If the idea for a new colour catalogue goes ahead, it would, of course, bump up the value of the jewels themselves, most of them very wearable 18th- or 19th-century brooches, pendants and dress ornaments. But will the Russians be able to find them? A few are now in museum collections - the Victoria and Albert has a handful of superb pieces - but most remain in private hands and, from the point of view of the Russian authorities, are "lost". In other words, they don't know where they are.

Indeed, the imperial origins of most of the pieces sold by the Russians before the war has now been forgotten (or was never known) by their Western owners. ldentifying them in auctions or dealers' shops can offer rich pickings. "People often forget that Antiques Road Show-type discoveries can be made at the top of the trade as well as the bottom," says Geoffrey Munn of Wartski's, the West End dealers. Wart-ski's bought direct from Russia before the war and specialises in Russian jewels.

"If you have a sharp enough eye for design and craftsmanship, you can find Russian crown jewels," Munn says. At a recent auction in Geneva, he bought an oval cabochon emerald and diamond clasp. It fits a description in Christie's 1927 sale catalogue, but its Russian provenance had not been spotted by the auctioneers. Or again: "When Christie's last had a copy of the 1924 catalogue for sale, I went down to look at it. I turned a page and there was a photograph of six of Catherine the Great's diamond buttons - which I had just been offered in the trade. I bought them!"

So far, the Russians have only managed to trace a handful of jewels. They have a big piece of detective work on their hands. But, if they succeed with it, there could be important repercussions for the market .

The story of the Diamond Fund is a strange and romantic one. Up to 1712, when Peter the Great moved the capital of Russia from Moscow to St. Peters- burg, the new city he had founded on the delta of the river Neva, the Russian crowns and State treasures were kept in the Armoury in the Kremlin. And there, the early regalia, thrones, crowns, wedding and coronation dresses, remain to this day, along with armour, rich ambassadorial gifts and other treasures. Tsar Alexander I turned the Armoury into a museum in 1806 and the Soviets regarded its contents as "national treasures" which could not be sold off.

But the jewellery and regalia that was kept in St. Petersburg had quite a different fate. From the reign of Peter onwards, the imperial family distinguished between their personal jewels and "State" treasures. The latter were kept in the so-called Diamond Room of the Winter Palace and added to as reign succeeded reign. Unlike the Moscow treasures these jewels were all made in European styles - Peter the Great Europeanised his country and Catherine the Great (1762-96), a passionate Francophile, reinforced this orientation. The stars of the Diamond Room were the regalia of Catherine the Great - a crown, sceptre and orb so rich that they were used by every successive ruler. Earlier Tsars had always had new crowns made for them.

Catherine's regalia is still in Russia and can be visited in the small Diamond Fund exhibition which takes up two high-security rooms of the old Kremlin Armoury Museum. The crown comprises two split hemispheres encrusted with 5,000 diamonds and edged in pearls while, between them, a floral filigree of diamonds supports an enormous ruby, weighing 399 carats, surmounted by a diamond cross. The sceptre is set with the famous "Orloff" diamond which weighs 190 carats and is one of the largest in the world: it was purchased on Catherine's behalf by her lover Count Grigori Orloff. The gold, silver and diamond orb incorporates a 200-carat sapphire.

The Diamond Room also contained a wide variety of tiaras, pins, brooches, medals, orders and pendants of a more modest kind. While they were used for State occasions, the imperial family often had them remodelled to suit changing fashions. The "Nuptial Crown", for instance, worn by the last tragic Empress Alexandra at her marriage to Nicholas II in 1894, was was made up of bands of diamonds sewn on to red velvet, originally made as trimmings for a doublet and kaftan worn in 1767 by Catherine the Great's son, the future Emperor Paul I. It was sold at Christie's in 1927 and purchased in 1966 by Mrs Merryweather Post, the Bird's Eye heiress, for her Russian art collection, now housed at the Hillwood Museum in Washington DC.

When the First World War broke out in 1914, Nicholas II had the entire contents of the Diamond Room packed up and sent to Moscow for safe keeping. The eight crates were stored in the cellars of the Armoury Museum. Then came the 1917 Revolution and in the turmoil all memory of what had been done with the jewels was lost. All through the Civil War, the Red and the White Russians exchanged insults on the way the other party had stolen the national heritage. Lenin had, indeed, established "Gokhran", the State Treasures Department, in 1920, and given it charge of all confiscated jewels and precious metals; a large proportion was sold abroad to keep the new government afloat. But it was only in 1922 that the eight crates of the Diamond Room collection were rediscovered in the Armoury cellar. A splendid photograph survives of the treasures laid out on a table surrounded by the staff who had unpacked them.

The Diamond Fund was set up to look after them. A commission, headed by the professor of mineralogy, A Y Fersman, and which included the director of the Hermitage Museum, S Troinitsky and Agathon Faberge from the famous family of St. Petersburg jewellers, was set the task of compiling a catalogue. lt was published in French in 1924 under the title Les Joyaux du Tresor de Russie.

By Then, ugly rumours were circulating that the crown jewels had been shipped to Amsterdam for sale. Some of them had reached Holland, but public outrage was such that they were quickly returned to Moscow and, in 1925, a public exhibition was organised to demonstrate that the collection was intact. The subsequent sales in the West were not publicly acknowledged in Russia until just after perestroika.

Since World War Two, the Diamond Fund has become the nation's chief store of precious metals and jewels; all diamonds mined in Russia that weigh more than 20 carats are automatically passed to it. It is associated with the Ministry of Finance and its stock of valuables is used to guarantee the currency. Since metals in their raw state and uncut stones are less valuable than finished jewellery, trained jewellers have joined the staff in order to turn the Diamond Fund's stock into more valuable finished products - necklaces, brooches and tiaras which are never expected to be sold or worn. Maybe it is no odder than keeping all that gold in Fort Knox to guarantee the dollar, but it is certainly rather more picturesque.

The Armoury Museum, which has given over two rooms for the display of jewels from the Diamond fund, is pressing to have the historic jewels removed from the Ministry of Finance and incorporated into its collection. "We bring it up again every year," Rimma Kostikova, deputy director of the Armoury, told me. "It's now a different situation from the Twenties. The jewels should be considered in terms of their historical and artistic value." But the Diamond Fund has no desire to hand them over.

Recently 115 pieces from its collection went on exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, in an exhibition entitled "Jewels of the Romanovs". It is the first time that the Russian crown jewels have ever been lent abroad, and they are set to tour American museums for another year. The exhibits include an early 19th-century gothic-style gold bracelet incorporating a miniature of Tsar Alexander I which is covered by the largest flat-cut diamond in the world - it weighs 25 carats. There is also a replica, made in 1985, of the "Russian Field" diadem, which originally belonged to Paul I's wife, but which was sold in 1927 and disappeared. The original had diamond wild flowers set in silver, supporting a large yellow citrine; the remake is even grander with diamond wild flowers set in platinum supporting a 43-carat yellow diamond.

The exhibition represents only a tiny proportion of the Diamond Fund's collection. But this fragment alone is valued for insurance at $130m. !

Clockwise from top left: gold and diamond portrait badge; gothic- style bracelet; tiara (centre); diamond string with tassels; sapphire brooch; the "Golden Fleece" badge; 260-carat tourmaline pendant

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