Fabergé and Russian Decorative Arts exhibition at VMFA, Richmond, installation view. (Oksana Berzinsh for Fine Art Globe)

A craft of Easter eggs decoration, a Christian tradition since mid-Middle Ages, was enriched in the late 19th century when the House of Fabergé was commissioned by Tsar Alexander III of the Russian Imperial Romanov family to create a collection of the Fabergé Easter eggs. From then on Fabergé eggs, intricately decorated with precious stones and enamel, have always been esteemed as the most exquisite works of jewelry art.

Five illustrious Fabergé’s imperial Easter eggs, along with almost three hundred fascinating Russian decorative art objects, are currently on display at the Fabergé and Russian Decorative Arts exhibition at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VFMA). The patron of the VMFA, Lillian Thomas Pratt, donated a large selection of Fabergé creations to the museum in 1947.

WHAT: Fabergé and Russian Decorative Arts
WHERE: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 200 N. Boulevard
Richmond, Virginia

These lovely objects of fine jewelry art had a tumultuous history.

The House of Fabergé, which was founded in 1842 by Gustav Fabergé in St. Petersburg as an ordinary jewelry atelier, remained relatively unknown until his son, Peter Karl, took over the company in 1872 and developed it into one of the most successful and largest businesses of its kind. In 1885 Fabergé became the official supplier of the Imperial Court of Russia, creating, until 1917, exquisite jewelry and precious pieces of decorative art, including fifty-two extraordinary imperial Easter eggs.

After the Russian Revolution, the abdication of Emperor Nicholas II and the execution of his family, all Romanovs’ possessions came into the hands of the newly formed state. The Fabergé business was nationalized by the Bolsheviks and Karl Fabergé was forced to move to Switzerland, where he died, in Lausanne, in 1920. While it is well known that the cash-starved Soviet republic had auctioned off or sold many of the Tsar’s assets to private dealers, collectors, and wealthy buyers from the United States and Europe, the fate of the entire Fabergé inventory, including the precious Easter eggs owned by the Imperial family, remained, for a while, unclear.

Forty-three of them have survived the turbulent times and are now in public and private collections, such as Kremlin Armory in Moscow, Royal Collection Trust in the U.K., and a number of museums in the USA, including Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Hillwood Estate in Washington D.C., and Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. All in all, at least fourteen opulent imperial Easter eggs are available for public view in the USA.

Catherine the Great Easter Egg, Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens. (Oksana Berzinsh for Fine Art Globe)

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts display of Fabergé eggs includes the Imperial Peter the Great Easter Egg, which was created to commemorate the founding of St. Petersburg. It is made of gold, platinum, diamonds, and rubies and is decorated with miniature watercolor paintings – portraits of Peter the Great and Tsar Nicholas and their residences. It also includes a miniature replica of Peter’s equestrian statue placed on a golden platform. The lapis lazuli, diamond, and gold accentuated Tsarevich Egg showcases intricate rococo-styled design with double-headed eagles – the coat of arms of Imperial Russia. The astounding platinum and diamond-studded frame holds a portrait of Tsarevich Alexei. The Rock Crystal Revolving Imperial Egg features twelve miniature paintings inside the transparent glass shell that are mounted on a gold stem and topped with emerald. The structure is designed to rotate the paintings, which are depicting Tsarina Alexandra’s favorite places.

The Rock Crystal Revolving Imperial Egg, VMFA Richmond. (Oksana Berzinsh for Fine Art Globe)

The Imperial Red Cross Easter Egg is lined with velvet and is made of gold, silver, mother of pearl, enamel, and ivory. The Pelican Easter Egg is made of gold, diamond, enamel, pearls, glass, and watercolor on ivory. Each egg contains a miniature “surprise” inside that is designed to convey something personal and meaningful to the recipient. The egg itself is conceived as a very expensive and one of a kind gift-wrap.

An exciting addition to the newly designed exposition space that houses the show at the VMFA is its interactive components: large touchscreens offering detailed information about design and the crafting process of the Imperial Easter eggs, mobile app, and a newly designed website.

Imperial Peter the Great Easter Egg, VMFA Richmond (Oksana Berzinsh for Fine Art Globe).

The Fabergé Eggs remain in high demand and keep changing hands to this day.

In 2004, two months before Sotheby’s was to auction Malcolm Forbes family’s Fabergé collection, a Russian tycoon Viktor Vekselberg purchased an entire lot in a private sale. The collection, which included nine Imperial Easter Eggs, was donated to Fabergé Museum in St. Petersburg.

The keen interest for Fabergé sustained not just by the incredible monetary value and craftsmanship of these extraordinary objects of art. It is also a result of a combination of a few other, just as important factors: the emotional and romantic aspects imbued into these very personal gifts, the tragic history that was unfolding at the time of their creation, and the mystery that is surrounding the still missing items. One can’t underestimate the unique artistic excellence that Fabergé himself saw as a core value of his works, and it undoubtedly distinguishes the House of Fabergé from their competitors.