In 1999, while taking a break from my PhD to try to get rich in the fine jewellery business, I nearly became the world’s largest counterfeiter of Fabergé eggs. It all started in Arlington, Texas, where my brothers and I owned several jewellery stores. Boris, an alcoholic Russian ex-pat who’d been with us for years, came into my office one January morning – we’d just had a lousy Christmas season – and told me something he’d been keeping to himself for a while, that in St Petersburg the remnants of what had once been Fabergé were still in business, using the old equipment to make eggs and other enamelled pieces just as good as the ones in museums around the world. The jewellers hadn’t been paid in months; they were keen to find a home and a regular paycheck in America. Boris’s best friend was the shop-manager.
In February I flew with Boris and my assistant to the factory in St Petersburg, hoping to hire about 50 jewellers. I was incognito: the owner of the factory, a Russian millionaire and, so I was told, notorious mobster, knew only that I was interested in making a large purchase (which was true in its way). The craftsmanship of their eggs, clocks, pocket watches and other more traditional jewellery pieces was like nothing I had ever seen. The enamel work – the signature of Carl Fabergé, the thing that made him the greatest jeweller of his time, perhaps the greatest jeweller ever – had an astonishing intensity of colour: the eggs looked almost liquid, as though you could push your fingers into their surface, as though there were a lamp hidden beneath the metal. Walking among the crowded jewellers’ benches I realised that with the right marketing I could make millions. I would have no competitors. The upfront costs of the deal could be financed quickly and easily if we made a few eggs that, so the story would go, I had managed to ‘purchase’ while I was in Russia: a couple of lost Fabergé masterpieces. As in the art and antiquities business, and among philatelists, tricks like these are not unheard of in fine jewellery. I had counterfeited before.
What I didn’t know at the time, and wish I had (it might have eased my conscience), was that my shifty trip to Russia to steal someone else’s jewellers in order to produce fake eggs was very much in keeping with Fabergé’s shadowy history. In June 1923 the imperial Fabergé eggs seized by Red Army troops during the Revolution were put up for sale, along with many other treasures, in a kind of giant garage sale. But there were few buyers, and the eggs were particularly unpopular, as symbols of the worst excesses of the last great European royal family. Six eggs, falsely described as having tsarist provenance, went for perhaps £25,000 in today’s currency, roughly a 30th of what they would have been worth ten years earlier. Much of the jewellery was dismantled or melted down for ‘scrap’: including, possibly, several of the great eggs made as Easter gifts for the tsarinas. It was fortunate that the eggs displayed very little religious imagery, or more of them would certainly have been destroyed during the Revolution. As the world economy went into depression, the market for fine jewellery collapsed further, and in 1934 Christie’s auctioned the very first imperial egg, the 1885 Hen Egg, for £85. By this time the Soviet government had realised that it needed to find a better way to market its treasures.
Enter the American con man. The man who single-handedly revived Fabergé, by introducing the eggs to the American market, was Armand Hammer, friend of both Lenin and Reagan, president of Occidental Petroleum, philanthropist, autobiographer and rumoured Soviet spy. In his jewellery operations at least, he was an incorrigible shyster and a shameless counterfeiter. Hammer is the most colourful character in Toby Faber’s Fabergé’s Eggs: The Extraordinary Story of the Masterpieces that Outlived an Empire, which tells the story of the 50 imperial eggs, beginning with the Hen Egg, Alexander III’s first gift to his wife, Marie Fedorovna, and ending, after the descent of the eggs into near-worthlessness, with their reincarnation as treasures in the hands first of Hammer and then of Malcolm Forbes.
The secret of Fabergé’s enormous success as a salesman was that, unlike the other jewellers serving the royal court, he understood his work to be primarily the making of gifts. Marie Fedorovna first visited his workshop in 1882, and bought a pair of cufflinks bearing an image of cicadas (Fabergé had been inspired by restoration work he had done on ancient Greek and Scythian jewellery at the Hermitage). What Fabergé understood – and it’s something that has been understood by very few jewellers – is that most jewellery pieces are anonymous, even cold. A rope of Mikimoto pearls or a magnificent strand of diamonds can be given by almost anyone to almost any woman; the significance of the object lies only in its cost. Even rarity is up for grabs: there is much more manufactured rarity than actual rarity in the gem and diamond market, and virtually any trained jeweller can string together a set of well-matched diamonds to make a bracelet. Fabergé, however, wanted to give each egg an individual significance, with a private (indeed, secret) meaning for the giver and the receiver.
On the outside, the 1885 Hen Egg, just two and a half inches tall, seems to be merely a simple – though unusually elegant – example of the traditional Russian Easter gift, an ornamental egg. But then it opens, like a matryoshka, and there is a large golden yolk inside. Inside the yolk, a golden hen sits on a golden nest: this is an image of the queen, mother to the country and to the tsar’s children, on her throne. It is also a little joke, since in this instance the egg has given birth to the hen. Inside the hen, a diamond crown; inside the crown, a miniature ruby pendant, a symbol of the heart, and of the tsar’s love, which the tsarina carries with her wherever she goes. We can’t understand all the references contained even in this first egg, but that, of course, is the point: the egg was made for one woman, and could only have been given to her by one man. The surprises aren’t intended for us.
Fabergé’s belief that a gift should above all be personal goes some way towards explaining why the eggs fell into such disfavour: it’s hard fully to appreciate the beauty of the eggs without knowing the women they were designed to please. This is also the reason the more impersonal eggs – like the 1900 Trans-Siberian Railway Egg, which contains a foot-long miniature clockwork locomotive made of platinum that pulls golden carriages – are less convincing: they lack intimacy. Other Fabergé creations, the animals carved from jade and topaz, the fantastically ornamented clocks, while they were not commissioned and therefore are not personal in the way the eggs could be, were nevertheless designed for a particular audience: they were gifts for a few.
The Romanovs did not think of the eggs as a means of exhibiting their wealth; they weren’t, after all, meant for public display. But both the tsarinas, Marie Romanov and her insecure daughter-in-law Alexandra, were certainly known for their extravagance, as was Nicholas II and his father before him. Nabokov and others have suggested that the Romanovs’ fondness for Fabergé pieces didn’t endear them to the average citizen in pre-Revolutionary Russia, and may have contributed to the family’s murder. It’s hard not to see the Fabergé eggs as a metaphor for the Romanov family, that final, ostentatious flourish of European aristocracy: beautiful, hugely costly, useless, even silly. The Fabergé eggs were the end of one idea of Russia.
But back to Hammer. The details of his early involvement with the Russian government are mysterious: we will probably never know whether he was indeed a spy, or just a clever businessman with connections at the highest levels in the Kremlin. What we do know is that he had almost exclusive access to the best (and the worst) Russian jewels and artefacts, and established a modestly successful trade selling them in Paris, London and eventually New York in the years before the collapse of the stock market in 1929. By the spring of 1931, however, the business that he had established with his brothers in New York City – the cleverly named L’Ermitage – was losing money by the bucketful, and he went back to America to turn it around. He and his brothers bought trunks from a theatrical company, loaded them with a huge variety of exotic Russian goods – including two real imperial eggs – and went on a tour of Midwest department stores.
The claims Hammer made to attract the attention of the press were, with rare exceptions, spectacular lies. He sold china and linens from prewar hotels and monasteries as ‘Romanoff Treasure’. He told newspapers he had paid 20 times what he had actually paid for the two eggs he took with him. He used a set of real Fabergé signature stamps to pass off every kind of reproduction as the real thing. Any item, no matter how modest, and no matter who had made it, came in a special Fabergé case accompanied by documents ‘proving’ it to be of Romanov origin. He made up pseudonymous scholarly articles about the eggs; he started his own magazine, Compleat Collector, to disguise advertising for his (so-called) Fabergé collection as editorial; he brought in experts to give lectures on Fabergé (but didn’t, presumably, let them get too close to his counterfeits); he arranged for articles about his Romanov treasure to appear in the New Yorker, in Social Spectator, in Time.
Hammer was wildly successful. Soon heiresses like Marjorie Merriweather Post were avid Fabergé collectors, and the eggs began to sell for higher prices. King Farouk of Egypt bought three for an undisclosed sum, probably in excess of £25,000. Once a millionaire or two had paid staggering prices for them they became the fashionable thing to have, and the price went up even more. At around this time, Hammer, who was never exposed as the counterfeiter and conman he was, moved into the oil business, where he made the kind of fortune no one could ever make selling jewellery.
To be fair to Hammer, the jewellery business is a natural place for the substitution of illusion for reality: a diamond has little use and even less real value; its worth is a matter of perception. With all his trickery, lies and promotional savvy, Hammer managed to create a market in something that had been of almost no interest to any buyer: he belongs, in a way, with the greats of the jewellery business – Mikimoto of Mikimoto Pearls, Cecil Rhodes of De Beers, Hans Wilsdorf of Rolex. These magicians invent value. In Hammer’s hands, the imperial Fabergé eggs became the symbol of a brand, like the Birkin bag for Hermès. The price Carl Fabergé has paid is that his productions can no longer be seen as art. When contemporary aestheticians deride the eggs as examples of kitsch or tacky ostentation, what they are seeing is not Fabergé at all, but Armand Hammer and the greatest collector of Fabergé eggs, Malcolm Forbes.
Now the eggs reached truly stratospheric prices: by the time Forbes was nearing his goal of a dozen eggs, an egg cost more than $3 million. Although he was a discerning collector, three of the eggs Forbes bought as imperial turned out to have been made for customers other than the Romanovs, and we still don’t know how much misidentified and counterfeit Fabergé his collection contained. The making of Fauxbergé – the term was coined by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which inherited the collection of eggs purchased from Hammer by the heiress Lillian Pratt – continued as a cottage industry long after Hammer left the business. Fabergé experts have disputed the imperial credentials of even such previously accepted eggs as the Forbes Spring Flowers Egg, though the Forbes family continues to insist on its legitimacy (Malcolm’s son Kip Forbes is a leading Fabergé scholar).
For Forbes the eggs were one more ‘Capitalist Tool’ (the name of his jet and the slogan of his magazine), a proof of his success and a way of showing off. In the end his ostentation was justified: the eggs turned out to be one of the best investments he ever made. Shortly before his entire collection was due to be sold at auction at Sotheby’s, Viktor Vekselberg, a Russian billionaire, bought the lot for more than $90 million (the exact figure has never been disclosed). So the eggs returned home at last, where they joined those recovered by the Soviet government in the 1970s and 1980s.
The definition of an imperial Fabergé egg is one that was given to either Marie or Alexandra Fedorovna. There are 50 of them in all: 30 went to Marie, 20 to Alexandra. Of the 30 ‘Marie’ eggs, eight are tantalisingly missing. For treasure hunters, Faber offers some clues to their possible destinies in his final chapter. The uncertainty creates a great opportunity for the counterfeiter. Faber anticipates (even recommends) my little scheme: ‘Yet the value of Fabergé is now such that it would be worth assembling a team of master craftsmen, and putting them together with the best designers, if the result could pass for a genuine piece.’ Even a disputed piece could be worth millions, though a recent counterfeit, an egg-clock owned by the art dealer Michel Kamidian, was bought at auction in 1991 for $105,000 (Christie’s declared it at the time to be a fake); last year, it was ruled in a lawsuit to be worth $200,000. Kamidian’s piece is an obvious forgery, however, so would-be counterfeiters shouldn’t be too discouraged by this case.
My own venture into Fauxbergé ended rather quickly. When we came downstairs after our tour of the workshop, two Russian policemen were waiting with the factory manager. I spoke no Russian and no one spoke English but the manager and I both spoke a little German, and he said we’d been exposed. We were going to be taken into custody. Boris had vanished. I turned to my assistant and said, in English: ‘Start crying.’ She did, and I asked the manager if we could go outside for a moment while she calmed down. He reluctantly agreed (we left our coats with the cops and, this being St Petersburg in February, they knew we weren’t going anywhere). As soon as we were outside we ran. We ran back to our hotel (with one stop along the way, when my assistant bizarrely insisted on taking my picture, my face full of panic and disbelief, as we crossed a bridge over the frozen Neva), changed our tickets, changed hotels, and left the next day. When I was safely home I made one last attempt to bring the jewellers to the US, but it turned out that it would take years to get permission to import their elaborate engraving machines, which were essential to the enamel work, because of old Cold War laws restricting the import of machinery from Russia. They had no idea how to rebuild the machines: they had probably been made before any of the people who now used them were born. So they stayed in St Petersburg without any salaries, and I stayed in Arlington, Texas, with my struggling jewellery stores. As Augustine teaches us, the greatest part of virtue lies in the absence of opportunity for vice. Before long I went back to my dissertation and became a philosophy professor. There were no fledgling oil companies calling my name.