By Charlene Oldham. Photography courtesy of VMFA
Imperial Russia and Richmond, Va., are separated by thousands of miles and a century of turbulent history, yet some of the Empire’s most iconic treasures managed to migrate across time and space to call the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts their home.
The VMFA’s Fabergé and Russian Decorative Arts Collection showcases some 280 objects, including five Fabergé eggs. The intricate eggs bear the name of Peter Carl Fabergé a goldsmith and jeweler who, with the help of his staff of master craftsmen at the House of Fabergé, created the eggs at the behest of the last czars of Russia.
“All the imperial eggs were commissioned by the czars and took a year or two to make,” said Barry Shifman, VMFA’s curator of decorative arts. “They were given as gifts.”
The fantastical Fabergé creations offered a lavish take on the Russian Orthodox Church tradition of giving decorated eggs at Easter which, in turn, represents one step in the long evolution of eggs as a symbol of spring renewal, according to Kristina Killgrove, a biological anthropologist and professor at the University of West Florida. And, because the egg’s shell essentially entombs its inhabitant until it’s ready to hatch, it holds particularly potent meaning for Christians who celebrate Christ’s resurrection each Easter.
“Zoroastrianism, pagan Roman religion and Christianity all have a tradition of eggs being associated with rebirth,” she said. “The egg — which is initially inert but then produces a living, breathing chick — easily lends itself as a symbol of death as well, or at least as a way to signify the desire for rebirth following a death.”
Each of the imperial eggs hatched at least one surprise, such as a delicately detailed miniature carriage. Czar Alexander III presented the first Fabergé egg to his wife Maria Fedorovna in 1885 and followed it with a newly fashioned egg each Easter. Upon Alexander’s death in November 1894, his son and Romanov family heir Nicholas II expanded on the tradition, presenting both his wife and widowed mother a new Fabergé creation each Easter.
The custom came to an abrupt end when protests forced Nicholas II from the throne in 1917. The events marked the early days of the Russian Revolution that eventually brought Bolshevik Party leader Vladimir Lenin to power. Russia’s last czar, along with his wife Alexandra and their five children, were placed under house arrest in rural Russia before being shot to death by Bolsheviks in 1918. The family’s remains were scattered after the execution, leaving people to speculate that some members survived. DNA tests conducted on additional remains found a decade ago put rumors to rest for most. Still, the stark contrast between the family’s opulent lifestyle and shocking end contributes to the imperial eggs’ allure.
“It’s about the people,” said Shifman. “That’s the main draw, the mystery and tragedy of this imperial family that was so brutally murdered.”
Before closing its doors during the Russian Revolution, the House of Fabergé created 50 imperial eggs, according to the modern Fabergé website, seven of which are currently lost. The newest revision to the list came earlier this decade, when an American scrap metal dealer realized the trinket he bought for $14,000 at an antique stall and had since been unable to resell for a profit was actually the Third Imperial Easter Egg, valued at an estimated $33 million.
Lillian Thomas Pratt, the collector who brought so many of Fabergé’s creations to Virginia, including the five eggs on display in Richmond, paid considerably less for her acquisitions through the 1930s and 40s, although their price tags represented a fortune to most in Depression-era America. According to records in the VMFA collection, Pratt paid $16,500 for the Peter the Great egg, which may have been her priciest purchase.
“It took her two or three years to pay it off because she only paid $200 or $300 a month,” said Shifman. “I would say, for most people, and even for her, that was a lot of money in those days.”
Unlike many other Fabergé enthusiasts, Pratt came from modest beginnings and spent some of her younger days working as a secretary before marrying John Lee Pratt, who rose through the ranks at General Motors to become a vice president. The couple moved to the historic Chatham Manor in Fredericksburg, Va., when he retired.
Upon her death in 1947, Lillian Thomas Pratt bequeathed her collection of Russian decorative arts to Richmond’s Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. It forms the backbone of the institution’s current collection, which includes about 170 objects attributed to the House of Fabergé.
“It’s the largest public collection of Fabergé outside Russia. It’s the collection with the most imperial Easter eggs outside Russia,” Shifman said. “The Fabergé firm was one of the finest in Europe at the time and Mrs. Pratt is extraordinary because she is really one of the first American women to be buying these treasures in a big way.”