Bejeweled!

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Objects from the House of Faberge will be exhibited at the DIA.

Bratina: House of Faberge, Julius Rappoport, workmaster, undated, silver, gilt, enamel, sapphire, emerald, ruby, garnet, blue topaz, pearl. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. Bequest of Lillian Thomas Pratt.

It was some egg — actually a small work of art in the shape of an egg designed by the House of Faberge — that came up for auction in 2007 and sold for $18.6 million.

Known as the clock egg and long among the holdings of Jewish banking icons the Rothschild family, the enamel and gold designer piece was bought by a Russian collector.

The Faberge artistry — whether in the form of bejeweled eggs or in the forms of decorous picture frames, parasol handles and other adornments — will be on view Oct. 14-Jan. 21 through an exhibit traveling to the Detroit Institute of Arts.

“Faberge: The Rise and Fall, Collection of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts” showcases more than 200 precious objects made by the Russian-based firm associated with its country’s aristocracy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Toby Faber, author of Faberge’s Eggs, is familiar with some of the pieces that will be on view in Detroit and recommends them and their stories. He spoke with the JN about Jewish connections to Faberge pieces in a recent phone conversation from England.

“I knew something about Faberge when I started writing the book, but I didn’t expect how beautiful I would find the objects when I saw them in the flesh,” says Faber, who recently talked about the artwork and his book during a meeting of Spiro Ark, a Jewish cultural organization in London.

“The objects really are much more impressive when you see them properly exhibited as I’m sure they will be in Detroit.

“Photographs never do the pieces justice, partly because they’re a lot smaller than you’d expect them to be. They’re more jewel-like, and you can appreciate the craftsmanship that much more in person when [you also can notice] the way the light catches off them.”

Among the many displayed treasures will be a menagerie of animals carved from semi-precious stones and one-of-a-kind miniature egg pendants.

The display is complemented by text, large-scale photo murals and hands-on activities to show how such luxury objects would have been handcrafted in a workshop, viewed in a storefront and used to adorn the interior of an imperial palace.

The DIA will feature public programs — lectures, artist demonstrations, rare silent films and live music — to give a sense of the times in which the Faberge pieces were made (see sidebar on this page).

Ultimately, the exhibit explores the international fame and eventual demise of the designer brand spanning 40 years in Russia.

At the height of its success, the House of Faberge employed more than 1,500 craftsmen and was selling today’s equivalent of $175 million worth of goods annually, having a privileged relationship with the Romanov imperial family.

“The Faberge family members were Huguenots from the Protestant tradition in France, persecuted by Louis XIV,” Faber explains. “There’s nothing particularly Jewish about Faberge, but there’s a link of people being similarly persecuted for their religious beliefs. I’m sure some of the Faberge workmen were Jewish.”

One well-documented contributor to the House of Faberge was workmaster Julius Rappoport, a Jewish craftsman who trained in Berlin and opened his own workshop in St. Petersburg in 1883. He became Faberge’s most important supplier of silver objects in St. Petersburg. Best known for his naturalistic animal figures, he also executed special commissions for the imperial family and the imperial cabinet.

One of the objects to be shown at the DIA is a brantina, or spherical vessel, by Rappoport.

Faber originally became interested in the subject of Faberge artistry because he liked the idea of objects connected to stories. His recent London speech was given at a Wartski location, a Jewish family-owned antiques establishment specializing in Faberge and other Russian works of art.

“The eggs in particular, and there are quite a few in the exhibit coming to Detroit, were essentially made for czars to give to czarinas for Easter,” the author explains. “There also were connections with different events that were going on in the lives of the Romanovs.”

Faber tells the story of Jack and Belle Linsky, Jewish immigrants from St. Petersburg, where Faberge artistry was centered. In the U.S., they built their own art collection after establishing a fortune through the manufacture of Swingline staplers.

Although the Linskys tried to give their Faberge pieces to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the two noted art donors were scorned by museum administrators who did not value the pieces at that time. Eventually, the couple sold that segment of their artistic holdings.

One of the first collectors of Faberge pieces was American oil billionaire Armand Hammer (the son of Jewish Russian immigrants), who amassed his collection during his business ventures with Soviet Russia in the 1920s.

Faberge eggs, because of their linkage to the history of Russia, may bring some mixed feelings to Jewish visitors viewing the exhibit, according to Faber. Amid the beauty of the pieces looms the background of the devastating treatment of Jews in czarist Russia.

“You can trace all the events that led up to the Russian Revolution in the designs of the eggs,” Faber says. “It wasn’t deliberate by Faberge, but [is evident] with the benefit of hindsight.

“After the revolution, you get specifically into what happened to the eggs — how they got lost in the revolution and found again, and how they got sold off through middlemen to collectors, largely in America.

“Lillian Thomas Pratt was one of those collectors, and she is at the heart of the collection that is coming to Detroit.” 

By Suzanne Chessler, JN Contributing Writer 

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