Toby Faber - author and lecturer


I've written a few articles, mainly dealing with subjects covered in my books. I've grouped most of them together in two sub-pages. One groups together all my published journalism on Antonio Stradivari; the other includes various occasional pieces, on the recent reemergence of the Lipiński Strad, on the apparent carelessness with which some musicians in Los Angeles appear to have treated their valuable instruments, and on my time at Faber and Faber. The rest of this page shows an article I wrote about my experiences writing Fabergé's Eggs, which appeared slightly cut in the Daily Mail in March 2008.

Can I touch your eggs? 

‘After I picked myself up off the floor from laughing….no’.


That was the first response I received to the idea that I might get to handle a Fabergé egg. It hadn’t seemed that unreasonable to me. Granted, the Easter eggs that the Russian court jeweller Carl Fabergé made for Russia’s last two tsars to give to their tsarinas are among the most celebrated and lavish pieces of jewellery in the world. Granted, there were only fifty made, and, with eight missing, only forty two are locatable. Granted, the last time one came up for auction – the 1913 Winter Egg, an icicle-encrusted shell on a block of melting ice – it had fetched $9.6 million.


But I thought I stood at least some chance of success. My first book had been about objects of almost equivalent value – Stradivari’s violins. With them, I’d had no difficulty with access. Steven Isserlis had let me admire his cello. The Royal Academy of Music had lent one of its treasures for a charity event. I had picked up the celebrated Viotti Stradivarius, named for the owner who had done more than any other player to publicise the power and beauty of a Strad’s tone. A dealer had even let me borrow a Strad overnight.


Now my second book was to be about the creations of another iconic master craftsman. The tsars had commissioned their Easter eggs from Fabergé with the specific brief that there were to be no repetitions. In his relentless search for novelty, for something that would interest the tsarinas, the jeweller had inevitably found himself exploring themes that reflected the lives of his Romanov paymasters. The eggs had become a fascinating window onto the lives of that tragic family. After the 1917 Revolution, they had been lost and rediscovered, then sold abroad to monarchs, entrepreneurs and collectors. Now they were starting to return to Russia, brought back by oligarchs. They had become icons to a new age of materialism. There was a great story to tell.


But I wanted to handle an egg. How could one appreciate their quality - the meticulous workmanship that went into every piece - without that sort of first-hand experience?  How, above all, could one truly appreciate the ‘surprise’ that came with each egg – something intended to delight and divert its recipient – without being able to turn the knobs, or unfold the exquisite screens, or set in motion the automata that each egg hid?


So I made that first request. I had a contact at Washington DC’s Hillwood Museum, which owned the two eggs bought by Marjorie Merriweather Post, heiress to General Foods. It seemed a good place to start. I was answered with hilarity. As my contact – Hillwood’s librarian – went on to explain, she had only ever handled an egg once, in an emergency when she had to fill in for someone – it was surprisingly heavy, but that was about all she could tell me.


Suitably chastened, I contented myself with looking. At Hillwood I could see two eggs. Among them was the Catherine the Great Egg, a masterpiece in pink and grey enamel. Its surprise, a wind-up model of Catherine in a sedan chair, was now missing, but had led the egg’s recipient, the Empress Marie Fedorovna, widow of Tsar Alexander III and mother of Nicholas II, to describe Fabergé as an unparalleled genius. In Hillwood’s gardens I could walk down the ‘Friendship Walk’, a seventieth birthday present to Marjorie Post from her friends. It terminates in a quotation from a postcard written by the Empress Alexandra Fedorovna, who died with Nicholas and all her children in a Siberian basement: ‘Friendship outstays the hurrying flight of years and aye abides through laughter and through tears.’


Marjorie Post was only one of several American collectors of Fabergé. A railway tycoon, Henry Walters, had two eggs that were discovered in a packing case some years after his death. I saw them at the museum he endowed in Baltimore, where creations like the Gatchina Palace Egg, with its scale model of Marie Fedorovna’s summer residence, are part of an amazingly eclectic collection that ranges from butterflies to Roman statuary. Lillian Pratt was married to a General Motors executive. The five eggs she bought between 1933 and 1942 are now in Richmond Virginia. There I witnessed two teenagers suddenly stop giggling over the unfamiliar French pronunciation of ‘Fabberjay’, reduced to enraptured silence by the Revolving Miniatures Egg, through whose transparent shell they could see tiny detailed pictures of Alexandra’s childhood homes.


Back in England, the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace has a corner permanently devoted to Fabergé. On my first visit I saw two of the Queen’s three eggs, including the Spring Flowers Egg, which was only identified as an Imperial egg when a researcher noticed it in an exhibition photograph dating back to pre-Revolutionary St Petersburg. More recently, the Mosaic Egg was there too; hundreds of precious and semi-precious stones make it resemble a piece of exquisite embroidery.


A day trip to Zurich allowed me to see nine eggs in one go: a temporary exhibition of all those originally collected by the magazine tycoon, Malcolm Forbes, but since bought as a job lot by a Russian oligarch, Viktor Vekselberg. When the collection left New York in 2004, huge crowds had gathered to see it for one last time, their interest piqued by the vast (but undisclosed) sum that Vekselberg was said to have paid. In Zurich I was one of five or six visitors, there to see masterpieces like the Coronation Egg, which contains a perfect scale model of the Tsar’s ceremonial coach, and my personal favourite, the Lilies of the Valley Egg, an art nouveau piece garlanded in pearls. Each piece was displayed and lit to perfection, but as inaccessible as ever.


Finally, in Moscow, I joined an organised tour of the Kremlin Armoury Museum – the only way to see it. Five of the ten eggs that the Communists never got around to selling for foreign exchange were on display, crowded together in a glass case with several other Tsarist treasures.


By the end of my odyssey, I could claim to have seen more than half of all the Imperial Easter eggs, but I still hadn’t been allowed closer to them than any other tourist. I tried another contact. The Director of the Royal Collection was a friend of a friend. Might a diplomatic letter do the trick? This time the refusal was slightly more measured: ‘I am afraid that I cannot see a way round this. The eggs are so delicate that I really hesitate to allow anybody except curators to handle them’.


Nevertheless, I was still getting to touch other, ‘lesser’, pieces of Fabergé. Dealers were only too happy to let me feel the amazing velvety smoothness of his enamel, and to hear the satisfying click of a superbly-worked fastening. At auction houses, I spent hours examining pieces for sale under the beady gaze of smartly dressed young ladies. Then last year the Rothschild Egg came up for sale at Christies. It had been an engagement present for a member of the French banking family in 1902. So it was not one of the true ‘Imperial’ eggs, made for the Tsars. In fact its Jewish provenance means it cannot be an Easter egg at all. Nevertheless, it is, at least, an egg-shaped clock, with a surprise – a singing bird that emerges from its top – that makes it very similar to Marie Fedorovna’s Easter present in 1900. I was not likely to get a better chance at access. Once again, I wrote my most persuasive letter. This time, I did not even receive a reply.


At least I was in the auction room when the Rothschild Egg was sold. The unimaginably vast sum it fetched - £8.9 million – is a clear demonstration of the effect Russian buyers have had on the Fabergé market over the last few years. It also shows how unlikely it is that I will ever get to touch an egg. In retrospect, I am amazed that I ever thought I might. My success with Stradivari blinded me – violins are meant to be played; there’s an acceptance that they don’t belong in glass cases. Fabergé’s eggs, by contrast, are now firmly established as museum pieces. It may be sad that their surprises are hardly ever sprung, but it is true that the mechanisms would eventually wear out. If their beauty and ingenuity have to be admired from a distance, perhaps that is not such a bad thing after all.

© Toby Faber