Even as they were being produced, Fabergé’s eggs were widely regarded as artistically innovative. “They were the signature piece for Fabergé,” Shifman explains, noting that some of the eggs were exhibited at the Paris World’s Fair in 1900, and in a 1902 exhibition in St. Petersburg. “Even at the time, they had magic, everyone knew they were important and they influenced others,” he continues. “Other artists tried to make their own eggs.” (House of Fabergé was also known to make eggs for wealthy patrons outside of the imperial family at the time.)
Each year, Fabergé would reinvent the task, employing unexpected materials, like rock crystal, or new devices, like claw-footed plinths, clocks, or automatons shaped like small birds or elephants.
The most iconic Fabergé egg extant today, von Habsburg believes, is the Coronation Egg (1897), which commemorated Alexandra’s imperial coronation. Covered in luminous, yellow-green enamel over an engraved, guilloché, sunburst design, it’s bookended by portrait diamonds and cradles a toy-sized coach—a miniature replica of the 18th-century vehicle that transported the empress on the day of the imperial ceremony. One could open the small carriage doors and pull out a step stool, and within it, there was a tiny diamond egg (which has since been lost). (The Coronation Egg is now in the Fabergé Museum in St. Petersburg.)
Von Habsburg’s personal favorite, though, which he deems “the most original of all,” is the Winter Egg (1913). “It consists of three blocks of rock crystal which are fashioned so that they represent blocks of melting ice, to mark the advent of spring,” he explains. A gift from Nicholas to his mother, the egg is engraved with platinum and diamond snowflakes on the exterior, while within it one would find a small, platinum woven basket with flowers made from white quartz.
The final imperial Fabergé eggs, crafted in 1916, reflect the unstable moment in history, and the beginning of the end of House of Fabergé. “During the war years, the eggs became a little more simple and severe, less elaborate, due to the circumstances of the political times,” Shifman notes. In addition to the aforementioned Order of St. George Egg, in 1916 Faberge created the Steel Military Egg, made from shiny steel and sitting atop a plinth shaped like bullets; it bears little resemblance to the effusive eggs of decades prior.
Nicholas and his family went into exile in 1917, after he abdicated the throne; they were all executed in July of 1918. By that time, Fabergé’s workshop had disbanded, as many workers left to fight in World War I, and Fabergé himself fled to Switzerland, where he died two years later.
The 50 imperial eggs were looted and transported to Moscow during the Russian Revolution; many were sold, 10 eventually made their way to Moscow’s Kremlin Armoury Museum, and eight went missing. “The Bolsheviks had no mercy and no interest in the artistic value, the only thing that mattered for them was the financial return,” von Habsburg explains. In some cases, they sold the egg’s surprises separately, which is why many of those prized pieces are now lost.
Certain eggs found their way to private dealers, who brought them to the United States and sold them to wealthy Americans after the Depression. The dealer Armand Hammer, for example, sold five eggs to Lillian Thomas Pratt, patron of the VMFA. In 1933, she began making payments on the three-colored-gold Peter the Great Egg (1903), which celebrated the 200th anniversary of the founding of the city of St. Petersburg; she ultimately paid $16,500 for it, and would buy four more over the next decade. Several Fabergé eggs were sold at the New York antiques store A La Vieille Russie.
Today, the 43 known eggs are scattered around the world, with the largest collections at the Kremlin Armoury and the Fabergé Museum in St. Petersburg. The third largest cluster is Pratt’s collection at the VMFA, followed by the trio of eggs that belonged to Matilda Geddings Gray, which is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
in New York. The British Royal Family also has three eggs.
The Fabergé Museum, which opened 2013, is home to nine imperial eggs, among a trove of other Fabergé objects, all from the collection of Russian businessman Viktor Vekselberg. He had bought the collection in 2004, from American entrepreneur and magazine publisher Malcolm S. Forbes, who amassed a cache of Fabergé to rival that of the Kremlin Armoury. Von Habsburg attributes some of the modern-day frenzy over the eggs to Mr. Forbes, whose collecting practices not only drove up the prices of the eggs, but also drummed up public attention for them.
Von Habsburg recalls traveling with one of Forbes’s eggs back in 1986, for an exhibition of Fabergé that he had organized in Munich. “I was carrying one of the Forbes eggs across the ocean and the egg had to have a seat next to me and a guard,” he recalls. “This of course was leaked to the press and fascinated them enormously.”