Imperial Fabergé & Russian works of art shine in Heritage's inaugural dedicated Auction of Russian Art

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Imperial Fabergé & Russian works of art shine in Heritage's inaugural dedicated Auction of Russian Art
Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna: An Imperial Fabergé Diamond-Set and Gold-Mounted Silver Carved Nephrite Tomato-Form Gum Pot.

DALLAS, TX.- Revolutions and wars tend to both make and break histories, and the eruptions that threaten to erase the past can also add layers of understanding and meaning to the difference between “before” and “after.” In terms of consequences, the Russian Revolution of 1917 is one of the most studied and remarkable as the Bolsheviks sought to erase nearly 300 years of Russian imperial culture steeped in rich traditions and geopolitical influence, and to overthrow Tsarist rule that stretched back yet another two centuries. Pre-Soviet Russia was awash in extraordinary art and culture, and the fateful revolution of 1917 resonates to this day; the years between then and now have provided us with the kind of perspective that only comes via subsequent unfolding histories and the slow march of time. What has the world lost and gained in those years, and what legacies, aesthetics, and traditions from Russia’s profound and fascinating past have endured through careful preservation ... if not grown even more valuable?

Throughout its own history, Heritage Auctions has sold extraordinary Russian objects of fine and decorative art, coins and currency, silver, enamel, and objets de vertu; it has realized exceptional prices for paintings by Russian artists such as Ivan Aivazovsky, Léon Bakst, Nicolai Fechin, Natalia Goncharova and more. It has set six-figure prices for works by the Imperial Jeweler Carl Fabergé and has offered masterpieces by his competitors and colleagues. Now Heritage announces its upcoming May 17 event Imperial Fabergé & Russian Works of Art — its first auction dedicated to the country’s stunning cultural history and output. From private collections, highlights include museum-quality works by Fabergé made for the Imperial House of Romanoff, as well as Russian paintings, icons, porcelain, furniture and Romanoff archival materials from the Estate of Princess Maria Romanoff. There is also, from the sweeping Nelkin Collection, an exceptional selection of Fabergé , Moscow enamels and Russian Imperial porcelain.

“It is rare for any auction house to have more than one or two pieces with Imperial provenances that are new to the market in a sale,” says Nick Nicholson, Heritage’s Senior Specialist in Russian Works of Art. “But to have 25 such pieces is an embarrassment of riches, especially when many of them are masterpieces of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. Heritage is honored to have been chosen by the Romanoff and Nelkin estates to offer these works, many not seen in public for decades, and pleased to have been selected by major collectors in the field to assemble this extraordinary sale.”

Outstanding works from the studios of the Russian goldsmith and jeweler Carl Fabergé that were once owned by the storied Romanoff family provide a foundation for this auction. Some of the most significant Fabergé and other Russian works the family owned come to Heritage from a private collection in California. In the 1940s, two women gave birth on the same day in the same California maternity ward; one of them was Princess Vasili Romanoff, the wife of a nephew of Russia’s last Tsar, Nicholas II. The women and their families became fast friends, and within a few years Prince Vasili revealed a treasure of Russian objects inherited from his grandmother, the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, which were brought out of Russia with the family during their escape from the Bolsheviks. The young prince Vasili, his mother Grand Duchess Ksenia, the Dowager Empress, and many Fabergé treasures had traveled from Crimea to safety abroad. These objects, last seen publicly in 1996 as part of the bi-coastal landmark museum exhibition Fabergé In America, are offered at auction by Heritage for the first time on behalf of a family that has preserved them for more than 75 years.

Highlights from this private California collection include an Imperial Fabergé diamond-set and enameled Bowenite frame containing a photo of Empress Maria Feodorovna — the egg-shaped, gold-mounted frame belongs to an extremely small group of egg-form frames produced by Fabergé in the workshop of Mikhail Perkhin before 1899. The frame’s Imperial provenance and the presence of its original presentation case set it apart from the few other extant models that are in institutions and private collections. This piece was likely a commission, and in a photograph featuring Queen Alexandra and her sister the Dowager Empress, it can be spotted on a desk. Another highlight is an Imperial Fabergé gold and opalescent pink guilloché enameled diamond-shaped clock that belonged to the Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna; the clock epitomizes Fabergé's Louis XVI revival style at the turn of the century. This clock entered Fabergé's stock in 1894 and may have been purchased by or gifted to the Grand Duchess on the event of her marriage in August of that year. The clock and other Romanoff family treasures that traveled from Russia were given to Prince Vasili for safekeeping before 1947.

Fabergé’s animals have been collector favorites for more than a century, and with good reason; a particularly charming treasure in this collection is an Imperial Fabergé hardstone cockerel that belonged to the Dowager Empress. This beauty is one of a surviving number of composite carved hardstone Fabergé objets de fantaisie animal forms that took off with the arrival of the stone carvers Kremlev and Derbyshev from the Urals. Ones such as these, mounted with detailed gold feet, came from the workshops of Henrik Wigström.

The auction also offers Russian paintings, icons, porcelain, furniture and Romanoff family archival materials from the Estate of Princess Maria Romanoff. Born Princess Maria Immacolata Valguarnera di Niscemi, Princess Maria, or “Mimi” as she was known, launched a successful jewelry design business in the U.S. and in 1971 married Prince Alexander Nikitich Romanoff, the son of HH Prince Nikita Alexandrovich of Russia and his wife, the former Countess Maria Illarionovna Woronzoff-Dashkoff.

“The couple became one of the most socially prominent in New York,” says Nicholson. “Cultured and impeccable, Prince and Princess Alexander were well known as serious collectors to the great auction houses and dealers of the world. The property of Princess Romanoff will be offered across several Heritage Auctions in the coming year, and Russian material from the Romanoff estate will be offered in this inaugural event on May 17.”

Highlights from the Princess Romanoff estate include an Imperial Baptismal presentation icon of Saints Nikita, Xenia and Alexander that was given to their son by Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna and her husband Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich. Commemorating the births of each of their children, these skladen, or icons of the patron saints of each of their children, were ordered in advance of their births, and the side panels prepared ahead, with the central panel left blank in anticipation of the birth and the announcement. After 1917, Prince Nikita traveled with this icon and kept it throughout his life; the icon was inherited by his son Prince Alexander. Also from the estate: an oil-on-canvas portrait of Empress Catherine II "The Great"attributed to Carl Ludwig Christinek after Feodor Rokotov. According to Prince and Princess Romanoff, the painting was a wedding gift from their friend Margaretta "Happy" Rockefeller, wife of Vice President Nelson Rockefeller. Though attributed to Christinek, this portrait of Catherine the Great is taken from Russian artist Feodor Rokotov's three-quarter-length portrait of the Empress painted in 1763, which is in the collection of the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. Fascinating and intimate family objects come from the estate as well, including 13 Romanoff family photo albums containing photos dating from 1908 to 1936 that include unpublished and candid images of the extended Romanoff, Yusupov, Woronzoff-Dashkoff and Sheremetev families; two of Prince Nikita’s 1917 diaries inscribed in his own hand; and an Imperial Fabergé champlevé enameled silver paper knife that belonged to the Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich, a gift from the last Tsar, Nicholas II.

“The Fabergé knife is recorded in the accounts of the Emperor's cabinet for the spring and summer of 1911,” says Nicholson. “It was likely a birthday present for the emperor's cousin and brother-in-law, Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich, whose 45th birthday was in April of that year. It’s just one of the extraordinary objects and archival materials from the estate of Princess Maria Romanoff.”

Another significant element in this event is represented by more than 20 masterpieces from a major private collector of Imperial Fabergé. Over three decades the collector has built a stunning and discriminating collection of the rarest and most beautiful objects created by the firm. “Each of these pieces has had extensive research work executed by Heritage in conjunction with leading U.S. and Russian scholars in the field,” says Nicholson. “And this extraordinary effort has resulted in the rediscovery of their Imperial and aristocratic provenances, which had been lost and are presented for the first time in this sale.” Among the works: Hardstone animals, clocks, boxes, cigarette cases and smoking implements, mounted objects in nephrite and other hardstones and an exceptional mounted Chinese jade from the Collection of the Princes Yusupov.

An Imperial Fabergé diamond-set and gold-mounted carved Nephrite tomato-form gum pot that belonged to Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna is one significant highlight from this collection, and belongs as much to the genre of Fabergé flower and plant studies as it does to the firm's objets de luxe. It was purchased on February 7, 1901 by the Dowager Empress for her own collection. A Fabergé ruby and diamond-set gold-mounted Chinese jade lotus-form dish is another leading lot from this special collection; the detailed beauty once belonged to Princess Zinaida Yusupova. Carved in the manner of a Qing dynasty lotus-leaf brush-washing bowl, it’s mounted with a gold handle in the form of a lotus stem and tendril set with thirty rose-cut diamonds and a large oval cabochon Burmese ruby. Sure to be a collector favorite from this collection is this Fabergé diamond-set obsidian hardstone carved black bear. The charismatic piece, complete with sparkling eyes and a knowing smile, retains its original case which is stamped to the interior of the lid on the silk reading “Fabergé” with the imperial warrant, St. Petersburg, Moscow, London, dating the work to the period of 1906-1915 when Fabergé's London location was open.

An incredible selection of Russian works on offer in this auction comes from the spectacular Nelkin Collection. Ruth Silvia Nelkin collected Russian works passionately for more than four decades, concentrating primarily on Moscow enamels as well as works in porcelain by the Gardner, Kuznetsov, and Russian Imperial Porcelain factories, as well as works by Carl Fabergé, Feodor Ruckert, Maria Semyonova, and the firms of Khlebnikov, Ovchinnikov, and Grachev. The Nelkin Collection of Russian porcelain is exceptional in the number of works from the Russian Imperial Porcelain Factory’s famous production of ethnographic figures, “The Peoples of Russia,” modeled by Pavel Kamensky between 1907 and 1917. This series of 74 figures remains one of the most desirable of the Imperial Porcelain Factory’s production, and many of the figures, including many rare figures from the first production in the reign of Nicholas II, are included. Another highlight from the Nelkin Collection is a Feodor Rückert en plein and cloisonné enameled gilt silver casket, after Makovsky's Boyar Wedding, acquired by Ruth Nelkin in 1978.Itsimage, from Konstantin Makovsky's famous 1883 work, A Boyar Wedding Feast in the Seventeenth Century, was a popular one in Russia as it conjured a romantic ideal of pre-Petrine Russia. And an Imperial champlevé enameled gold and gilt silver presentation icon lamp for the Chudov Monastery came from the Tsesarevich Alexander Nikolaevich. He commissioned it to commemorate the much longed-for recovery of the Tsesarevna and her son the Grand Duke in a period of family ill health and grieving; it was to be placed before the tomb of the young Grand Duke's patron, Saint Metropolitan Alexis of Moscow, whose relics had been venerated within the Church of Saint Alexius built within the Chudov Monastery of the Kremlin since 1485. Confiscated by the Soviets and sold abroad, it has not been seen in public since 1980.

This extraordinary treasure of Russian and world history is but one piece from the extraordinary Nelkin Collection, and indeed an entire auction that illuminates and celebrates a time, place and patronage that continues to fascinate collectors and historians alike.

“It has been a pleasure to work with such exceptional material, and to be able to offer a sale of this caliber in the United States,” says Nicholson. “Until the 1990s, the U.S. was the center of the Russian art market, and Heritage looks forward to renewing that tradition by helping usher these pieces into new collections with our May 17 Imperial Fabergé & Russian Works of Art Auction.”

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