It was good timing and not planning that we were recently in Montreal, Quebec, Canada,  just at the start of a fabulous Faberge exhibition (June 14 - October 5, 2014) at the Museum of Fine Arts. We didn't know it was on until we checked out the museum website!  It is an exclusive exhibition in Canada of the largest public collection of Faberge art outside of Russia.

Four rooms of the museum displayed the extraordinary one of a kind craftmanship of the leading Russian jeweler in the early 20th century. Peter Carl Faberge was the visionary master goldsmith who catapulted his father's humble jewelry business to international fame. No known object made by Faberge himself has survived but many pieces made by some of the 500 artisans working in his workshops still exist.

Imperial Csarevitch Easter Egg (1912) - lapis lazuli segments with gold and diamonds
Gift from Czar Nicholas to his wife
The surprise inside is the portrait of their son 
This collection is on loan from the Virginia Museum of Fine Art in Richmond.  It came to be because of a remarkable woman named Lillian Thomas Pratt (1876-1947).  According the knowledgeable museum guide, Lillian Pratt was a stenographer who married her boss.  Her husband, John Lee Pratt, later became a General Motors executive.  He did not quite share her fascination for Faberge objects. But Lillian Pratt prevailed and collected nearly 170 pieces in the 1930's and 1940's including 5 magnificent Imperial eggs.

All the Imperial eggs were made between 1885 and 1917.  After the first one was made, Faberge was given full artistic licence with the designs. The royal family only had one request - that each egg contain a surprise.

Peter the Great Imperial Egg (1903) in gold, ivory and precious gemstones
Gift of Czar Nicholas to his wife
The surprise inside is a miniature of the famous statue of Peter the Great on horseback
Lillian Pratt was a collector of relatively modest means. Yet with her dogged determination through scrimping and saving - she paid for the Imperial Peter the Great egg in 33 installments- she outdid far wealthier collectors of her day. She paid $16,500 for that egg at a time when an average yearly salary was $2,400!   Her generous bequest to the Virginia Museum upon her death means we can all get the chance to admire Faberge objects up close.

Imperial Pelican Egg (1898) - Red Gold
Gift from Czar Nicholas to his mother
The surprise is it opens out into 8 graduated oval panels rimmed with pearls
4 of the 5 eggs were on display in Montreal, clearly the stars of the show. But there were other eggs too - more modest ones like the porcelain two below which were commissioned as gifts for the Romanovs so they could reward their loyal retainers etc.

The Bolsheviks destroyed virtually all the Faberge jewelry they could find after the 1917 revolution, melting the precious metals down into ingots and rubles. But fortunately, many of the delightful gemstone egg pendants are still around.  The Romanov family loved giving these tiny inch high pendants as presents.

My big grin when I realized they allowed informal photography!
All the photos in this post were taken with my iPhone 5 under challenging light conditions!
These little pendants were beautifully displayed on special hangers and glass cases designed by the talented French exhibition designer, Hubert Le Gall.

Egg Pendant - Chalcedony, gold and diamonds
Egg Pendant - Gold and enamel
The exquisitely drawn Alexander the Great pendant was one of the very few other jewelry items not melted down!

Many of the objects were "everyday" possessions used by the royal family including bejeweled parasol and cane handles, vases, drinking cups, pitchers and so on!

parasol and cane handles with vase at the back
The decorative styles also varied enormously from the ornate enamel work to the simple and whimsical like the carved agate ostrich.

One outstanding piece was the tiltable Terrestrial Globe which was made from rock crystal and set on a gold stand. It measures just over 13 cm (about 5 inches) high.The craftmanship is incredible. Longitudes and latitudes were engraved and there is even a compass at the base. The gold bands have the months and zodiac symbols marked on them. The polar gold caps show the hours of the day.

The most poignant objects had to be the numerous picture frames filled with photographs of what was a close and loving family.  Lillian Pratt collected as many as she could - perhaps to find a more visual connection with the tragic Romanovs.

The Triptych frame above in silver, silver gilt, enamel, wood and glass shows photos of the Czarina Alexandra,Czar Nicholas II and their beloved but ill-fated only son, Alexei. Czar Nicholas was ill-prepared and ill-suited to be a ruler of a vast country.  He spent the first part of World War I inaptly leading the Russian army at the front while he left the running of the country to Alexandra.

Imperial Red Cross Egg (1915) - gold, silver gilt, ivory, mother of pearl
Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna's gift to her son, Czar Nicholas
The surprise is a folding screen of portraits
The Czarina and her two eldest daughters as well as other female relatives helped care for wounded and dying soldiers at a hospital set up in Alexander Palace.  The above egg portraits show them dressed as Sisters of Mercy. This rare interaction with ordinary people was really too little and too late.

Alexei suffered from hemophilia, a recessive genetic disorder inherited through his mother who was Queen Victoria's granddaughter. His condition and his mother's reliance on the charlatan monk, Rasputin, even in state affairs, contributed to the downfall of the Romanov dynasty towards the end of the First World War.

Empress Alexandra and her 5 children 
The star frame showing the portrait of the second eldest daughter, Grand Duchess Tatiana, was the only possession they took into exile which survived their assassinations in 1918.

The year the Romanovs were killed, the House of Faberge was nationalized by the Bolsheviks and all the stock was confiscated.  With the closing of the business, Faberge and his family were forced to flee Russia. Two years later, Carl Faberge died in exile. According to his family, he never recovered from the shock of the revolution and died from a broken heart.

His legacy still lives on with surviving pieces, in particular the spectacular signature eggs.  There were 50 Imperial eggs  made in all. Until recently, 42 were accounted for.  The 43rd egg was miraculously rediscovered in 2014 when a US scrap dealer bought it from an antique bric-a-brac stall and almost had it melted down for the gold.  The Imperial Watch Egg (1887) made from gold, cabochon sapphires, diamonds and enamels is now valued at £20 million or $34 million! A far cry from the few thousand dollars the dealer had hoped to make!

Fabulous Faberge : Jeweller to the Czars published by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

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