FABERG'E/Price of an egg in New York: $1,760,000

A fabulous Faberg'e Imperial Easter Egg has just been sold by Sotheby's in New York for the fabulous sum of $1,760,000, by far the most ever paid for a work by Faberg'e or for any object de vertu. The name of Carl Faberg'e has become more widely known than that of almost any other jeweler in history largely because of the aura surrounding the series of jeweled Easter eggs he made for the Russian Imperial family. Eggs, as symbols of life renewed, have been given at Easter for centuries, especially in Eastern Europe. What was unprecedented about Faberg'e's eggs was their opulence and invention. They have, themselves, become symbols, not so much of life, but of wealth and luxury.

Although the majority of the surviving Imperial Easter eggs are in American collections, none has ever been sold there by auction. Only three others have ever come to public auction. This egg, known as The Cuckoo Egg because it contains a rooster -- seriously, but read on -- last appeared at a Christie's auction in Geneva in 1973 when it sold for what now seems a bargain at 620,000 francs ($150,000). One explanation for this huge increase could be that before this auction the Forbes Magazine shared the distinction of owning the most Imperial eggs with the Armory Museum of the Moscow Kremlin. They each had 10. Malcolm Forbes has now gone one better than the Kremlin.

The first Imperial Easter egg was commissioned by the Emperor Alexander III in 1885 as a surprise gift to the Empress Marie Feodorovna. Surprise is the key element in most of the eggs, for each one opens in some way to reveal something unexpected. The Cuckoo Egg incorporates a clock and the surprise, apart from its name, is that at the touch of a button a gold grille opens to reveal a rooster which crows while beating its wings and moving its beak.

Alexander was so pleased with the first egg that he gave a standing order for one to be made each year until his death in 1894. His son, Nicholas II, took up the custom and commissioned two each year, one for the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna and one for the Dowager Empress. It seems not to be known which of them received The Cuckoo Egg when it was presented in 1900.

In 1900 Faberg'e reached the pinnacle of his success. The first public exhibition of the Imperial Easter Eggs at the World Exhibition in Paris earned him the Grand Prix and the award of the Legion of Honour. The eggs were seen then, as now, as triumphs of technical skill in conjunction with the finest use of materials. The Imperial eggs however, have always had their critics, not only for political reasons. The opulence is not to everyone's taste. Most would agree, though, that their stunning quality and refinement redeem them from vulgarity.

The design and execution of each egg took the best part of a year and was entrusted only to the best workmasters and craftsmen. The Cuckoo Egg bears the mark of Michael Perchin, a senior workmaster and one of the many Finnish craftsmen among the 500 working for Faberg'e in St. Petersburg. The egg is made entirely of gold, the body enamelled in translucent violet over a textured ground and set with diamonds and pearls.

The last eggs were made and delivered in 1916. Fifty four had been made in 31 years. After the Revolution and the end of World War I most of the eggs were sold. Mr. Emanuel Snowman of Wartski, London, bought The Cuckoo Egg, among others, in the late 1920s and Dr. Armand Hammer acquired several others.

Five are now in the Virginia Museum of Arts, Richmond, Va., three in the Matilda Geddings Gray Foundation, New Orleans, and others in the Hillwood Museum, Washington, D.C., the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, and the Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio. Two notable examples are in the British Royal Collection and are currently on view at the Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace.

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