SALEM — The basis of the “Fabergé Revealed” show at the Peabody Essex Museum is not a collection borrowed from Russia, but from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. And the owner of these treasures? A Virginia housewife named Lillian Pratt, who couldn’t get enough of Peter Carl Fabergé’s use of precious metals and jewels in thousands of adornments, including the world-renowned Fabergé eggs.
“She looked like a little old housewife,” Fabergé scholar Archduke Géza von Habsburg said over wine last week at the Peabody Essex’s outdoor restaurant. “She was smitten with Fabergé and she had the means to buy. Her husband was a General Motors executive. The story goes that her husband knew nothing of the things that she was buying, but that’s just legend.”
The exhibition, on view through Sept. 29, includes more than 200 pieces of Pratt’s Fabergé collection. Among them: five of the famous Imperial Easter eggs. Hers is now the largest public Fabergé collection in the United States.
A bit of history about the Fabergé eggs: Although they seem to be a fixture in pop culture — they’ve been referenced everywhere from the James Bond film “Octopussy” to an episode of “The Simpsons” — very few were made. They were a symbol of the doomed Russian empire. From 1885 to 1917, a total of just 65 eggs were produced. Of those, 57 have survived and are scattered in collections around the globe. There are only 42 of the Imperial eggs in existence. These were the eggs gifted between members of the ruling Romanov family for Easter each year.
There were dozens of premium jewelers in pre-Revolution Russia. The late 19th and early 20th centuries represented the nation’s Belle époque of glittering craftsmanship. The name that was most coveted was Fabergé. The company’s over-the-top enameled clocks, gold cigarette cases, and ruby-encrusted brooches were gifted and treasured among the very wealthy and European royalty.
Think Tiffany & Co. or Cartier, and you’ll understand the prestige of Fabergé. Like snowflakes, no two Fabergé pieces are the same. Which is why of all Russian jewelers of the era, only Fabergé has been the subject of fascination, and a world of forgeries.
“The interest in Fabergé just doesn’t abate,” according to von Habsburg, a published author and lecturer on Fabergé, as well as curator of the exhibitions “Fabergé in America” and “Fabergé Revealed.”
The historical value, along with the opulent materials, means that the rarest of these items fetch tens of millions of dollars at auction.
Each imperial egg took a year to produce and featured a surprise inside. The 1903 Peter the Great Egg features a miniature replica of a statue of Peter the Great on horseback that rises as the egg is opened, and the Imperial Red Cross Easter Egg and the Imperial Tsesarevich eggs feature tiny portraits inside. At its peak, Fabergé employed hundreds of craftsman in St. Petersburg and Moscow.
The end of the Russian Imperial family also signified the end of the Fabergé era. Nicholas II, the last tsar of Russia, abdicated the throne in 1917, and he and his family were executed the following year. During the revolution, the Bolsheviks confiscated the family’s valuables, including many of Fabergé’s coveted pieces.
“They took everything,” said Habsburg. “They broke up the jewelry of all of the noble families of Russia and sold it piecemeal in the West. The silver was melted down to produce rubles.”
Of the roughly 150,000 pieces produced by Fabergé, only about 10,000 survived. Because much of Fabergé’s output was undocumented, there is a robust forgery market.
“I’d estimate that 9½ out of 10 are forgeries,” von Habsburg says. “I’ve met so many people who think they have found something extraordinary, only to find out they’ve over-paid for a forgery.”
There are still Fabergé finds to be had. Von Habsburg, who has been studying the jewelry house for more than 40 years, said one woman picked up a pair of miniature eggs at a tag sale for a dime each. Nevertheless, even serious collectors like Pratt were regularly fooled.
“The workmanship on the forgeries can be impeccable,” he says. “But what I have is a gut feeling. I don’t even need to pick up an object. I can immediately tell if it’s a forgery or not.”
“Fabergé Revealed” is at Peabody Essex Museum through Sept. 29. 978-745-9500, www.pem.org.
Christopher Muther can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.