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Forbes Faberge Eggs Go to Vekselberg

© 2004 The Moscow Times,, Thursday, Feb. 5, 2004

By Catherine Belton, Staff Writer


Oil and metals baron Viktor Vekselberg has snapped up the Forbes publishing family's legendary collection of Faberge eggs just months before it was to go under the hammer at a Sotheby's auction in New York.

Vekselberg said Wednesday that he intends to return the collection to Russia and put it on exhibit around the country. The set includes nine jeweled eggs and 180 other Faberge pieces that once belonged to the family of Russia's last tsar, Nicholas II.

None of the parties involved in the deal would disclose the exact sale price of the fabled collection, which has been described by a Sotheby's expert as "a virtual Aladdin's Cave of treasures." But a source close to the sale said it was "more than $90 million" and within the range set by Sotheby's of $90 million to $120 million.

"Upon learning that the Forbes collection was going to be auctioned, I knew immediately that this was a once in a lifetime chance to give back to my country one of its most revered treasures," Vekselberg said in a statement issued by Sotheby's on Wednesday. "I am honored to have this privilege and to make this important collection available to the Russian public.

"The Faberge egg collection, purchased from the Forbes family by the foundation I have established, represents perhaps the most significant example of our cultural heritage outside Russia," said Vekselberg, who is a co-owner and director of TNK-BP, the nation's fourth-biggest oil company, which is jointly owned by the Tyumen Oil Co. and BP.

Forbes magazine estimates Vekselberg has a personal worth of $2.5 billion.

"The religious, spiritual and emotional content captured by these Faberge eggs touches upon the soul of the Russian people," he said.

Many of Russia's wealthy businessmen have started to engage in philanthropic projects after gathering vast fortunes in the often-rigged privatizations of the 1990s. Metals magnate Vladimir Potanin donated $1 million in 2002 to keep one of Kazimir Malevich's famous "Black Square" paintings in Russia, but Vekselberg's purchase is the first major acquisition of a lost treasure for its return and exhibition in Russia.

President Vladimir Putin has called on the oligarchs to do more to help society.

The centerpiece of the Forbes collection bought by Vekselberg is the famed Coronation Egg, described by Sotheby's as "one of the most spectacular objects ever made by Faberge." It has an estimated value of $18 million to $24 million. The gold-enameled egg is covered with diamond-set imperial eagles and holds a tiny gold and diamond replica of the coach Nicholas II's wife, Alexandra, rode into Moscow. It was commissioned by the 28-year-old tsar as an Easter present for Alexandra soon after his coronation.

The collection includes the very first and last Faberge imperial eggs made for the Romanov dynasty. Carl Faberge began creating the eggs in 1885 when Alexander III commissioned an egg for his wife, Tsarina Maria Fyodorovna.

In Moscow, a representative for Vekselberg was reeling from the news that the deal had come off.

"This all happened so quickly," said Andrei Shtorkh, head of strategic development for Vekselberg's Renova holding company and a representative of the Svyaz Vremyon Foundation, which was created especially to make the purchase.

"As soon as he [Vekselberg] heard that the Forbes family had decided to auction off the collection, it became clear to him that if he did not act immediately it would be sold, broken up and forever lost for Russia," he said.

It took Vekselberg less than a month to clinch the deal. Sotheby's announced the April 20 and 21 auction with much fanfare on Jan. 9.

"This is an unanticipated and exceptional outcome," Sotheby's president Bill Ruprecht said in the statement.

The Forbes family said it was pleased the collection was heading back to Russia. "The family is delighted that the advent of a new era in Russia has made possible the return of these extraordinary objects. It is an astonishingly romantic ending to one of the great stories in art history," the family said in the Sotheby's statement.

Malcolm Forbes, the late founder and publisher of Forbes magazine, began collecting Faberge items in 1960 with the purchase of a gold cigarette case.

Nicholas II's vast collection of Faberge treasures and other valuables were seized by the Bolsheviks immediately after the Revolution. Some of the eggs disappeared during looting of the imperial palaces by troops. Most, however, were stored in the Kremlin armory until Stalin came to power and began to sell them off in an effort to rake in Western currency to shore up his regime.

Between 1930 and 1933 alone, 14 of the imperial Easter eggs were sold abroad. Ten more were bought by Occidental Petroleum president Armand Hammer, who was a personal friend of Lenin's, and brought to the United States.

Only 10 of the 50 imperial eggs known to have been created by Faberge have remained in Russia and are kept in the Kremlin armory still. The rest are scattered in private collections and museums abroad. Queen Elizabeth II has three, and eight are missing.

Shtorkh said one of the conditions for Vekselberg's purchase was that the collection would be exhibited for one last time in the United States, but a date has not been set yet. Sotheby's was to have exhibited the collection in New York for a week before the auction.

"We agreed to exhibit it in New York so that the West can say goodbye to the collection," Shtorkh said. "We hope that it will never leave Russia again."

The Svyaz Vremyon Foundation intends to organize a triumphant return for the collection. Exhibitions are planned first in Moscow, then St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg, the final place of residence of Nicholas II and his family before they were shot by Bolshevik revolutionaries. Shtorkh said Vekselberg also hoped to display the collection in other parts of Russia.

Shtorkh said Vekselberg is now trying to iron out the tight security required for the collection's return.

He said Vekselberg also hopes to bring other lost treasures back to Russia.

Vekselberg made his first major venture into the art world last year when his SUAL metals holding sponsored an exhibition in Moscow's Tretyakov Gallery of a leading Russian impressionist, Nikolai Tarkhov. SUAL later donated some of its paintings to the gallery, Shtorkh said.

He said he hoped the Justice Ministry would not create any complications for the collection's return because the foundation, created just weeks ago by Vekselberg, has still not been registered.