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Faberge eggs head back to Moscow

© 2004 The Times, 20 may 2004.

by Clem Cecil

Treasures of the Tsars go on show in the Kremlin, writes Clem Cecil in Moscow

Nine imperial Faberge eggs were put on display in the Kremlin yesterday for the first time in more than a century after one of Russia's wealthiest men returned the $100 million (Pounds 57 million) collection to its homeland.

Viktor Vekselberg, the third richest man in the country, with a fortune of around $6 billion, bought the collection in February from the Forbes publishing family in New York.

They were collected over 30 years by the late Malcolm Forbes, and were about to be auctioned by Sotheby's when Mr Vekselberg stepped in with his surprise offer.

His generosity won praise and blessings from Patriarch Alexei II of the Russian Orthodox Church and from the Kremlin. Cynics, however, claimed that the oil billionaire was keener to seek the Russian Government's approval than to return artworks and valuables smuggled out of the country after the Bolsheviks revolution.

"The fact that Viktor Vekselberg saved this collection from being broken up, kept it together and brought it to Russia is a major event in our country's cultural and political history," said Tatiana Muntyan, curator of the Kremlin Museum's own separate collection of ten Faberge eggs.

Taxes on valuables were reduced earlier this year, allowing the creation of art collections on Russian soil. Mr Vekselberg, who owns a controlling stake in TNK, Russia's third biggest oil company, was the first oligarch to lead a successful hostile takeover. Mr Vekselberg's exhibition will remain in Moscow for a month and then travel to St Petersburg, and on to provincial Russian towns.

Mr Vekselberg has declared that he intends to "let the younger generation see with their own eyes what constitutes 'the great cultural heritage of Russia'." The Faberge eggs are resonant with symbolism for Russians as some of the most evocative relics of imperial life, and because Easter is the most important religious holiday for members of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Among the nine eggs on display, those presented by the jeweller Carl Faberge to the Romanov family every Easter, are the first egg, a simple white enamel egg with a golden yolk ordered by Alexander III in 1885, and the last egg made, "The Order of St George" which was smuggled from Russia by Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna in 1919. The star of the collection is the "Coronation Egg", marking Nicholas II's ascent to the throne.

Church unity: The Russian Orthodox Church has made the first steps toward reunification with its foreign branch, which split away after the Bolshevik Revolution, church officials said.