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Faberge eggs become symbols of power in new Russia

By Stephen Smith
BBC Newsnight

media captionWatch Stephen Smith's Newsnight film in full

In the annals of human folly, it is doubtful if blood and cash have ever been splashed over anything quite so fabulous and frivolous as Faberge eggs.

The story of these diamond-festooned treasures, the glorified Easter eggs of the Russian tsars, is one of imperial might, revolution and assassination.

image captionThe exquisite jewelled eggs were annual Easter gifts to family members from the Russian tsar

It is also the story of the ambition and incalculable riches of the new rulers of Russia and the oligarchs.

The jeweller and entrepreneur Carl Faberge fashioned his eponymous eggs from gems and precious metals in his St Petersburg workshop.

The first one was presented by Tsar Alexander III to his wife, the Empress Maria Fedorovna, at Easter in 1885, an annual tradition which his son Nicholas II followed with eggs for his mother and wife each Easter Sunday.

Of the approximately 50 eggs made for the imperial family between 1885 and 1916, 42 have survived.

In a strong room in south London I set eyes on four of the eye-popping baubles, made for a ruler who in his day was one of the most powerful men on Earth.

The last time one came on the market, in 2007, it fetched £9m.

So as I touched them I willed them not to slip out of my perspiration-slicked palms.

Hidden surprise

The baubles I was nervously fumbling now belong to Viktor Vekselberg, an oil and gas tycoon who has a fortune estimated at $18bn (£11.5bn) and is often described as Russia's richest man.

In 2004 he paid $100m for nine imperial eggs - a collection second only in size to the 10 held by the Kremlin Armoury Museum in Moscow.

Enchanted by the novelties disgorged by the eggs - one cracked in two to reveal a miniature working replica of the Russian state coach - I began to see how plutocrats like Mr Vekselberg have been beguiled by the tsar's unsurpassable bling.

media captionRussian tycoon Viktor Vekselberg on why he buys imperial Faberge eggs rather than football clubs

When the harvests failed and hunger stalked the tsar's vast empire in the early 20th century, the ever-more-ornate eggs presented at court were history's booby prize for a ruling dynasty which had grown hopelessly out of touch.

Nor did Faberge and his sumptuous wares protect the ruling Romanov line from their tragic end.

It is claimed that after the Russian revolution the Romanov women sewed them into their clothes to protect against theft and the rounds of the Bolshevik firing squad pinged harmlessly off them. But they were run through with bayonets instead.

Sold to the West

As for Faberge himself, one of the most far-sighted men ever to squint through a jeweller's eyepiece, he was publicly denounced as a "profiteer".

He fled to Western Europe with almost nothing to show for his years as the tsar's favourite. His son, Agathon, fared even worse. He was snatched from his mansion outside St Petersburg and held prisoner in the Kremlin, where he was made to value the hoard of the Romanovs and their court, for a fire sale to Western speculators.

media captionWatch Stephen Smith's Newsnight film in full

And that is where the story of Faberge and his gorgeous, ludicrous ornaments might have ended but for the morbidly intoxicating combination of rare jewellery stained with imperial blood.

The provenance of the Easter gifts made them irresistible to men like the rich American collector Malcolm Forbes, founder of Forbes' magazine. He acquired nine eggs, which in turn were snapped up after his death by Mr Vekselberg.

Mr Vekselberg granted me a rare interview in Moscow to talk about his collection and his project to return the eggs to Mother Russia - the four that I handled in London were in transit between exhibitions.

I began by asking him whether he thought it was worth spending so much money on nine imperial eggs.

"If you ask me what is the real valuation, what is the real price of that, really for me it is very difficult for me to say to you what it is," he said.

When I mentioned the fact that fellow Russian magnate Roman Abramovich had chosen to spend millions on a British football team - Chelsea - he said: "I don't see any negative to any rich Russians, any rich men, buying a football club - why not?"

Return of elite

But he would rather invest in Faberge than football and says the eggs are not personal trophies but part of his country's proud legacy.

"Faberge eggs - this is part of Russian history and Russian culture," he told me.

Mr Vekselberg has created a cultural foundation, the Link of Times, to look after his art. One of the foundation aims is to repatriate cultural artefacts lost by Russia in the 20th century.

image captionThe ever more ornate eggs came to be a symbol of a ruler hopelessly out of touch

Many of the artworks of pre-Soviet Russia collected by Mr Vekselberg were despised as the playthings of the ruling class. But now they are seen as part of the storied heritage of a Russian state rediscovering her history.

I asked Mr Vekselberg if Russia's President Vladimir Putin had thanked him for buying back Faberge eggs.

"Yes, I see that it is emotional for our president and very important that a Russian citizen brought back this huge collection," he said.

"Russia has a huge story, with a lot of artefacts, a big culture, and this is a piece of that," he added.

But the historical irony is not lost on him that a wealthy, remote elite are once again the masters in Moscow.

"If you compare with the situation in Russia 25 years ago, in socialist times, then everyone was of course equal... We broke one system and we have just started on a new system," Mr Vekselberg said.

"Of course we have some negative results of that transition system - we have a big gap between a small group of rich men and the biggest part of the population, who are not so wealthy, but this is a process and I believe this gap will be reduced," he said.

Watch Stephen Smith's documentary The World's Most Beautiful Eggs on BBC Four on Tuesday 25 June 2013 at 21:00 BST, then afterwards on the BBC iPlayer.