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Faberge eggs return to Russia lauded

© 2004 Associated Press, The New York Times Company

By Anneli Nerman, Associated Press Writer, 2/5/2004

MOSCOW - The purchase of nine Czarist-era Faberge eggs by a Russian tycoon who promised to return them to their homeland has prompted optimism in cultural circles that other great artworks sold by the Soviets could be returning home.

The purchase of the eggs - intricate treasures of jewels and precious metals - from the estate of U.S. publisher Malcolm S. Forbes by industrialist Viktor Vekselberg has attracted wide coverage in Russia, where most news about the ultra-wealthy recently has been about their imprisonment or moves to buy foreign sports teams.

"It's a sign that Russian capitalists are beginning to spend their money correctly," said Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of St. Petersburg's State Hermitage museum, the primary repository of Czarist-era art.

"There has always been this dream, but I wasn't sure it would come true. This is the first time that a major treasure sold by the Soviet authorities has returned to Russia," Piotrovsky told The Associated Press.

Aristocrats and wealthy merchants who fled the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution took substantial amounts of art with them; much of what was left was sold off by Soviet authorities, who were both strapped for cash and theoretically opposed to aristocratic excess.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russians have become increasingly interested in regaining their departed treasures. Wealthy Russians have gone on art buying sprees in the West, but few of the pieces have been brought home.

However, a recent change in the law could encourage the return of artworks by allowing objects with a significant cultural value to be imported without the normal payment of a whopping 30 percent import duty.

An official at the Russian Ministry of Culture attributed the return of both a Rubens painting and a tiara in the last month to the change.

"We have been fighting for this legal change for a long time. We believe it will mean the return of a lot of cultural objects," said Tatiana Petrova, in charge of import and export of cultural valuables for the ministry.

Vekselberg, vice president of the oil company TNK-BP and with an estimated net wealth of $2.5 billion, bought the eggs as part of a 180-piece collection of Faberge items.

He has promised the collection will be displayed in a tour across Russia, but has not said what will be done with the valuables after that.

The purchase price wasn't disclosed, although Sotheby's auction house had estimated the entire collection at as much as $90 million. The Coronation Egg - the most valued piece - could have fetched $24 million at auction, Sotheby's said.

Two museums are likely contenders to house the collection should Vekselberg decide to donate it or loan it out: The State Armory in the Kremlin, which already has 10 Faberge eggs, or the Hermitage, which has none.

Most of the eggs created by Faberge, including the Forbes collection, had been housed in the State Armory before being sold in 1922 by Soviet authorities. The museum is now overjoyed that the collection is returning to Russia and hopeful that it may be allowed to display it again.

"We feel a great pride in our entrepreneurs. ... It's wonderful that they are bringing back to Russia that which belongs to Russia. ... For us, they are not just masterpieces of jewelry but historical treasures," said Tatiana Volosatova, a spokeswoman for the Kremlin's museums.