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Russian pays $100 million for Faberge collection

© 2004 the International Herald Tribune, Thursday, February 5, 2004

Carol Vogel (NYT)

NEW YORK Just two months before Sotheby's was to auction the fabled Forbes family's Imperial Faberge eggs, Viktor Vekselberg, one of a new generation of Russian industrialists, bought the entire collection and is bringing it back to Russia.

Vekselberg, 47, the chief operating officer of TNK-BP, Russia's third largest oil company, is the fourth-richest man in Russia, according to Forbes Magazine.

None of the parties would disclose the price of the private sale, which includes nine imperial Faberge eggs - the second largest collection after the 10 in the Kremlin - along with some 180 other Faberge objects. But experts familiar with the Faberge market say Vekselberg paid about $100 million for the collection, which Sotheby's had predicted would bring at least $90 million at auction.

Vekselberg was traveling Wednesday and could not be reached for comment, officials at Sotheby's said, but in a written statement released by the auction house he said the purchase "represents perhaps the most significant example of our cultural heritage outside Russia." He added that when he heard the collection was for sale, he "knew immediately that this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to give back to my country one of its most revered treasures."

Bob Burkett, a spokesman for Vekselberg, said he is planning in some way to "make them available to the Russian people."

Asked whether this meant putting them on view at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg or the Kremlin, he said it was too early to say.

Christopher Forbes, vice chairman of Forbes, said Wednesday that he was thrilled with the sale. "It's fun we got to be the custodian of them for as long as we did. But it's a new Russia, an era of free enterprise. How nice to see them repatriated."

While Faberge experts say Vekselberg has not been a known buyer of Faberge objects until now, he has been collecting Russian art, furniture and decorative objects like porcelains.

William Ruprecht, Sotheby's chief executive, said Wednesday that the deal came through a "direct proverbial knock on our door," adding that for the last month now there have been any number of ''characters" who would have loved to have bought the collection.

Ruprecht declined to say whether Vekselberg was a Sotheby's client. "He keeps a low profile. But he had an intensity and focus and commitment to repatriating these things that made this a great transaction for everyone involved."

By not holding an auction, Sotheby's is saving hundreds of thousands of dollars it would have spent on marketing, printing and distributing a catalog, and security for the viewing.

Before the eggs return to Russia, however, highlights from the collection will be on view at the York Avenue auction house's headquarters, Ruprecht said. The collection, which has been on view in a gallery in the Forbes Building in New York, was formed by Malcolm Forbes, the publishing magnate. Among the treasures is the "Coronation Egg" that Czar Nicholas II gave Empress Alexandra for Easter in 1897 to commemorate his ascension to the throne.