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Oligarch returns poached Faberge eggs

© 2004 Financial Times, 19 may 2004.

Financial Times, Arkady Ostrovky

As one Russian oligarch heads towards a trial for fraud and tax evasion, another is displaying his wealth and loyalty to the Kremlin inside its Patriarch's Palace opposite the offices of President Vladimir Putin.

In an extravagant gesture befitting the Kremlin's golden domes, Viktor Vekselberg, Russia's third-richest tycoon, yesterday put on display a legendary collection of Faberge jewelled eggs that he purchased for more than Dollars 100m (Dollars 83m, Pounds 57m) from the Forbes family earlier this year.

This is the first time these nine eggs, produced by the house of Peter Carl Faberge for the Russian tsars, have returned to Russia since the Bolshevik revolution. Of some 50 eggs produced by Faberge from 1885 to 1916 for Alexander III and Nicholas II, the Russian tsars, only 42 have been found.

The exhibition, which opens this week in the Kremlin, comes amid growing popular discontent with the country's richest men. Seen as a publicity stunt by some cynics, it coincides with the build-up to the trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia's richest man, who has been in pre-trial detention since October.

The arrest of Mr Khodorkovsky and some of his partners provoked fear and anxiety among Russia's oligarchs. But Mikhail Shvydkoy, Russia's top cultural official, yesterday tried to strike a note of reassurance.

He said Mr Vekselberg's gesture was not "simply an attempt to buy protection", but a display of "long-term interests" in Russia's future.

"The return of these unique handicrafts has wider political significance. It is a sign of stability, and confidence in the rules of the game in this country. If one of the richest oligarchs brings back a collection worth Dollars 100m, it means that he is not afraid that it will be taken away from him," Mr Shvydkoy said.