- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 19, 2008

In times when the virtue of fiscal restraint can be in no doubt, there is something curiously gratifying about contemplating the alternative — in this case, Faberge’s eggs. The appearance of the first of these extravagant, bejeweled objects at the Russian royal court and others that followed are the subject of Toby Faber’s riveting social history “Faberge’s Eggs:The Extraordinary Story of the Masterpieces That Outlived an Empire.”

As Mr. Faber writes in his introduction, “In a little more than thirty years, fifty of these ‘imperial’ eggs were completed - each one unique. And now their reputation is legendary, enough to overshadow all the jeweler’s other pieces, but also to give them lustre.

“Even modern imitations benefit from the originals’ reflected glory. In March 2006, the story that supermodel Kate Moss smuggled the drugs ecstasy and Rohypnol in a … gem-encrusted Faberge egg — clearly a replica — made headlines around the world. And the St. Petersburg Collections’ most sought-after products, by far, are its eggs, notably those designed by Sarah Faberge to celebrate footballers such as Jimmy Johnstone and George Best.”

The journey of these master representations of the jeweler’s art began in 1885 when, for Easter, Carl Faberge created an ostensibly plain white egg for Czar Alexander III to give to his wife, Maria Fedorovna. To Maria’s delight, what was dull on the outside — “an apparently unexciting white enameled egg” was anything but on the inside, where Faberge had crafted “a perfect yolk, made of gold; within that was a golden hen, sitting on a nest of golden straw; and inside the hen was a diamond miniature of the imperial crown, concealing a tiny ruby pendant. Every detail was exquisitely rendered — the craftsmanship unparalleled, the creativity inspired. It was the first egg made by Carl Faberge for the Russian court.”

That gift began the tradition of creating lavish eggs to commemorate public occasions and private milestones. However, it cannot be overstated that the very appearance of the imperial baubles also signaled the beginning of the end of Romanov court. Mr. Faber is careful to detail the seismic historical changes that most of the eggs dodged and decorated and in this way, the book is part art history, part business history and something more — a curiously cautionary tale about greed, shortsightedness and empire.

Who would think that jeweled Easter eggs created between 1885 and 1917 could mean so much to so many? For collectors such as Armand Hammer, the eggs were irresistible. On why he collected Hammer said, “Because it’s fun. It’s a hunt. I get a certain joy out of finding rare works, out of learning the stories attached to them.” This quote captures the spirit of the book and serves as its epigraph. The book’s narrative follows the eggs’ appearance at court, their disappearance during the revolution and their re-emergence in the world’s market. Surrounding the eggs is a wide-ranging cast of characters including British royals, Marjorie Merriweather Post, old Bolsheviks, Malcolm Forbes and, of course, the controversial businessman Hammer. Through them, there is a sense that the eggs can tell us a great deal about the 20th century’s most uncomfortable truths.

And Hammer’s experience with the eggs is a case in point. “Sometime in the spring of 1931, Harry and Victor Hammer finally persuaded their brother Armand to return to New York. L’Ermitage, the business they had set up to sell Russian artifacts to wealthy Americans, was not doing well. In the words of Harry’s telegram, ‘How can we be expected to sell Faberge eggs and czarist treasures when stockbrokers are jumping out of windows and former chairmen of corporations are selling apples on street corners?’

Hammer, the octogenarian head of Occidental Oil who died in 1990, was a controversial figure in life, to put it mildly. Son of a well-known American Communist and friend to Ronald Reagan, some of his dealings with Russian artifacts left much to be desired. In more than a few instances, simple items from bourgeois households were presented as Romanov treasures, and this did little to enhance his reputation. However, the two Faberge eggs bought by Hammer — eggs that Nicholas II and Alexander II, had given to their wives for Easter - were, indeed, authentic treasures. Of these, Hammer would remark, “I suppose it is one of the minor paradoxes of the century that they should have ended up in the hands of a young man from the Bronx.”

Still, there is no denying the reprehensibility in much of Hammer’s dealings and Mr. Faber is fair and forthright in the telling. Nevertheless, what one remembers most from reading the book is the author’s appreciation of the eggs themselves and their significance.

Mr. Faber, the author of “Stradivari’s Genius” has a gift for explaining what constitutes a world treasure and a novelist’s understanding of dramatic narrative. He writes, “As for the original imperial eggs, each tells a story. Their individual designs inevitably reflect something of what was then happening in the lives of the czarinas … They have been smuggled past border guards, been used to repay favors among Communist sympathizers, and been stolen from an exhibition only to be recovered months later in a high-speed car chase. Most tantalizing of all, perhaps, are the eggs for which there is no history, those that disappeared in the revolution or soon after. They raise the possibility, however remote, of eventual discovery, of the classic attic treasure trove.”

FABERGE’S EGGS:THE EXTRAORDINARY STORY OF THE MASTERPIECES THAT OUTLIVED AN EMPIRE

By Toby Faber

Random House, $30, 302 pages

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