TREASURES OF ST. PETERSBURG
The 18th century Naryshkin mansion in St. Petersburg yielded a treasure trove of more than 1,000 items hidden from the Bolsheviks and Soviets for nearly a century
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In March 2012 St.Petersburg was abuzz over the fascinating find made during restoration work in an 18th century mansion that used to belong to the Naryshkin Princes: a hidden room had been discovered, not marked in any blueprints of the house. From floor to ceiling it was jam-packed with silverware by acclaimed masters of the craft.
"The restorers have hit upon a hidden treasure: hundreds of items, household items, chandeliers. Several large crates…", informed Alexander Novikov, the construction company’s PR official . What was particularly amazing was that the collection was in excellent condition, as if Prince Naryshkin had just set up the cache a week ago. Each item contained the family coat of arms. According to expert estimates, Petersburg had never before witnessed finds of such value and volume all in one place. Tea sets – from teaspoons to tureens, strainers, eggs, presumably, Faberge, chandeliers, jewelry, military awards of imperial times. The dishware was all carefully packed, each item wrapped in cloth, soaked in vinegar to prevent corrosion. The owners had hidden the treasure in 1917, right after the February bourgeois revolution that led to a fall of the monarchy.
The find in the Naryshkin manor stirred up quite a hype, and awakened in the city residents a treasure hunting craze.
It is rumored they are still trying to discover the treasures of Carl Faberge, owner of the famous Russian jewelry company. The Faberge showroom and workshop were located on Bolshaya Morskaya street. The building had its own underground armored vaults and a unique elevator. When employees left at the end of the working day, particularly valuable items were transferred to the elevator, which would then hoisted up to remain hovering between floors. Today the Faberge building also houses a jewelers showroom, albeit of a different company.
Russia, with its rich natural resources and opportunities always attracted talented and enterprising people from other countries, and received them in a show of hospitality. These individuals, in turn, put their talents to good use in a bid to enrich this country’s culture. One such enterprising individual was a native of France, jeweler Gustav Faberge. In the mid-19th century he settled in St. Petersburg, where he opened a small workshop and a store. In 1872 his son Carl took over the family business. The man was destined to bring his firm international acclaim.
Carl Faberge was a talented jeweler, possessed excellent organizing abilities, and business acumen. He founded the largest for those times in Europe jewelry business. His items bore the distinguishing stamp of supreme artistic style, combining rich traditions of Russian art and folk crafts with European jewelry techniques. Thanks to constant innovation, Faberge had no difficulty outpacing his competitors. It was this desire for innovation that enabled him at the end of each year to reassign for melting all items that remained unsold.
By the start of the 20th century Faberge was one of the empire’s largest companies, with a staff of around 500 craftsmen of diverse jewelry specializations. It had branches in Moscow, Kiev, Odessa, London. Each branch bore a distinct artistic style of its own. Transparent enamel lent the Faberge items particular attraction. It was used to decorate snuff boxes, brooches, cigarette cases encrusted with semi-precious stones. In Europe the company’s items often received Gold medals at prestigious international exhibitions. Russian jewelry art had earned due acclaim in the world.
However, it was the trademark Faberge Easter eggs that brought the company international acclaim – surprise gifts crafted for the imperial family. It was here that Carl Faberge’s imagination found worthy application. The company crafted souvenirs shaped as eggs, decorated with intricate artwork, which would contain some wondrous surprise inside. The first to commission one of these was Emperor Alexander III. In 1885 timed to Easter he conceived a gift for his spouse - Empress Maria Fyodorovna… Faberge rose to the challenge…
The ordinary at first glance egg was made of gold, and covered with a thick coating of white enamel. The shell could be separated into two parts and opened. Inside, in a semi-sphere of golden yolk, a miniature hen, made of different shades of gold, was sitting on a nest of eggs. All the details were made with such attention to detail, you could discern the small crest on the top of the bird’s head, the beady eyes, and even the smallest of its feathers. However, that was not all. The hen, in turn, also contained a surprise, and more than one. It contained two miniature items: a ruby egg, and an imperial crown.
Of course, this gift produced a most favorable impression. From that day Carl Faberge was granted the title Supplier to the court of His Majesty. Timed to every Easter his firm prepared a new gift - always unexpected and highly original. The secret of the Easter egg remained carefully concealed right up until the grand offering. When questioned by his Majesty about the new Easter egg, Faberge would reply evasively: “Your Majesty will be sure to approve…”
All in all there were 50 such Easter eggs made, of gold and silver, covered with precious stones. They are universally acclaimed as the summit of jewelry art, and their cost runs into millions.
Who knows what other wonderful creations the Faberge company would have crafted, if it were not for the events of 1917: first, the February revolution, the Emperor forced to abdicate, the arrest of the royal family, and, finally, the bolshevist coup.
Dramatic events forced the Faberge family to flee Russia, leaving behind everything: the firm, house, and a great many valuables, which meant that abroad they were practically destitute.
It so happened that a majority of the Faberge creations found themselves abroad. Partly taken out by Russian emigrants after the revolution, partly sold by the Soviet Government, which was in dire need of funds. The largest collection of Faberge eggs - 9 - was assembled by the late American Malcolm Forbes. In February 2004 it was acquired by Russian entrepreneur Victor Vekselberg. Thanks to this, it was not sold at Sotheby’s, as Forbes’s heirs had hoped, but after almost a century of roving it found its way home, to Russia.
Generally, quite a lot of people in the west profited from the Faberge trademark. It was illegally stolen, due to the fact the Soviet Union did nothing to protect the rights of former Russian citizens. Quite naturally, the outflow of «royal treasures» from a country that had toppled monarchy and required a great deal of finances to build a new society “unfettered” by the relics of the past, was only welcomed by its leadership. Among the ranks of ‘Lenin’s friends’ was Armand Hammer. At the time few in the USSR knew that the same Hammer had taken to the USA hundreds of valuable canvasses and other artworks from Russia. He would stride through the Hermitage, point at canvasses he liked, and they were at once removed, packed and wrapped, and shipped abroad by the wagon-load.
A doctor by training, Hammer appeared in the USSR when still a young man, right after the revolution. An enterprising opportunist, he was quick to sense there was a profit to be made from pretending to sympathize with the bolshevist cause. Hammer put on track a barter deal that supplied grain to the USSR in exchange for valuable works of art. It’s an easy guess how much he gained from this predatory “barter”. Several years later Hammer established himself in the U.S. as a billionaire and oil magnate!
Years later, when Moscow opened the lid on secret Party archives, it became known that Hammer had been a secret agent for Comintern, an international organization that united communist parties of different countries. Hammer was one of those entrusted with channeling funding into the U.S. Communist Party.
Hammer could not pass by an opportunity to profit from Faberge, either. The then People’s Commissar for Trade Anastas Mikoyan helped Hammer get hold of genuine Faberge marks of identification. Subsequently, at home the American launched а mass production of fake Faberge items, which were stamped with the genuine Faberge seal. This was disclosed after the billionaire’s death in a book written by his secretary. He wrote: "We made a huge profit on the fake Faberge".
After the revolution Carl Faberge donated his house rent-free to the Swiss mission, on the condition they would take custody of a leather travelling case containing the Faberge treasures. However, learning that the KGB was planning to raid the mission, the staff removed the treasures to the Norwegian embassy, from which they were stolen by unidentified thieves. And thus, the Faberge treasure chest vanished.
Rumors surfaced about the Faberge treasure after local television ran a piece about the Faberge country manor falling into decay. The house was a notable monument of estate architecture worth saving. Meanwhile, treasure hunters dug their way through the entire estate and garden.
“It is possible there were treasures hidden in those grounds, but they were most likely discovered back in the1920s”. Carl Faberge’s son, Yevgeny, residing abroad, once wrote that “they were digging at the estate”. However, no mention was made of any treasures discovered…
Source & Copyright: The Voice of Russia