A Thimbleful of History

… and intrinsic value. While they originated as sewing implements, over the centuries their decorative features evolved to complement their new functions as fashionable gifts, status symbols, and tokens of affection.

In the preindustrial era, the significant amount of domestic sewing made thimbles and other sewing implements common household possessions. Over time, they became increasingly valuable. For example, by the sixteenth-century, silver thimbles were listed in wills and other …

Tags: 18th century 19th Century Decorative Art Design History gold

ALVR Blog: Consider the Kovsh

Enamel and Gilded Silver Kovsh

Pictured above is an ornamental ladle called a kovsh, a type of Russian drinking vessel in the shape of a duck. Traditionally, various vessels were intended for different beverages. Kovshi, which come in a range of sizes, were intended for drinking kvass or beer. They were also used for drinking mead, a honey based drink that varied in flavor from using different fruits and berries. Silver kovshi were used for white mead, while golden kovshi were used for red mead.

They were originally made of wood and some early kovshi were made of tightly woven cloth.  In the 16th century, they began to be made in silver and increasingly assumed a ceremonial status. The kovshi in our collection are nineteenth and early twentieth century pieces of the Old Russian style, seen in the multicolored enameling inspired by sixteenth and seventeenth-century patterns. A yearning for a Russian art unmarred by Western influence contributed to what became the Russian Revival in the 1870s and 1880s. Interest in exploring early Russian artistic traditions provided craftsmen with a rich body of sources for creating beautiful, distinctly Russian works of art. Cloisonné enameling is but one example; another is trompe l’oeil, discussed in this blog post. While many such pieces were ornamental, a few could function as punch bowls or salts depending on their size.

These pieces illustrate how time and again the functional and artistic merits of the decorative arts can be appreciated both independently and harmoniously.

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Kvas, a mildly alcoholic drink made from bread, has a long history of being a drink of the common people. The recipe involved soaking leftover dark bread in hot water and left to ferment for a few hours, adding honey, fruit, or sugar for sweetener as desired. Kvas was cheap to make and the yeast provided nutritional benefits to an otherwise limited diet, so becoming a staple for the Russian peasantry.

In the 19th century it became more popular than in earlier times, even enjoyed by the nobility on occassion. The degree of ornament applied to these kvasniki, pitchers for kvas, hints at the newly elevated status of the beverage. Of the askos form, modeled after ancient Greek goat-skin containers, they recall a renewed interest in classical art. In the second half of the nineteenth-century, applied decorations like flowers or bright red coral, as seen here, became fashionable. These decorative yet functional vessels attest to how a simple beverage transcended class boundaries, to the extent that the Russians, in the words of Pushkin, “like fresh air they loves kvass”.

Russian Antique Decorative Arts and Jewelry


The most noted Russian jeweler from the late 19th century to 1917, the year of the Revolution, was Carl Fabergé. He produced some of the world’s finest enamel work, featured on many different types of items, ranging from clocks to frames to jewelry.  Works of art included sculpture such as hardstone flower studies and miniature animals, and household items such as bellpushes, often made for the Tsar and other wealthy Russian families. Original Fabergé works of art have become some of the most coveted antique items on the market.  (More to come.)

Fabergé Scottish Cumnock Pottery Motto Ware Teapot and Sugar Bowl


Fabergé silver-mounted Cumnock Pottery Motto Ware teapot and sugar bowl. The teapot features the Scottish motto “Tak a dish o’ Tea it’s unco refreshin,” which means, “Take a dash of tea it’s uncommonly refreshing.”  The sugar bowl features the motto, “Be canny wi’ the sugar,” which means, “Be careful with the sugar.”

This set speaks beautifully to Fabergé’s interest in mounting compelling porcelain and glass objects from other sources. This included decorative objects made locally in Russia, and abroad, such as this Cumnock Pottery, as well as Royal Doulton Burslem, Tiffany, and Gallé.

Established in Ayrshire, Scottland in 1792, Cumnock Pottery is most famous for its Motto Ware, which the company began producing around 1830. These pieces were inscribed with a favorite Scottish quote and usually requested for special occasions like weddings and christenings.

The pottery, Scottish, late 19th century.
The silver mounts, Fabergé, Moscow, ca. 1895.
Teapot height: 5 in.
Sugar bowl height: 5-1/2 in.

teapot only view of set of  Fabergé Scottish Cumnock Pottery Motto Ware Teapot and Sugar Bowlview of sugar bowl only of set of Fabergé Scottish Cumnock Pottery Motto Ware Teapot and Sugar Bowl

Fabergé Silver-mounted Kuznetsov Vase


Kuznetsov pottery vase set in a silver mount by Fabergé, workmaster A. Nevaleinen.
St. Petersburg, Russia, ca. 1900.
Height: 3 ½ in.

This vase speaks beautifully to Fabergé’s interest in mounting compelling porcelain and glass objects from other sources. This included decorative objects made locally in Russia, like Kuznetsov, and abroad, such as Royal Doulton Burslem, Tiffany, and Gallé.

Kuznetsov founded his Moscow ceramics factory in 1810. The firm received the title “Purveyor to the Imperial Court” in 1902 and by the end of the Romanov era, had become the largest of its kind in Russia.

Fabergé Tenth Anniversary Frame


A gift in 1901 from Grand Duke Michael Michailovitch to his wife Countess Sophie von Merenberg, a granddaughter of Pushkin, on the 10th anniversary of their marriage. Grand Duke Michael was a grandson of Nicholas I and a nephew of Alexander II.

The gilded silver and guilloché enamel frame features a Roman numeral ‘X’ with a wreath at its center, surrounded by four heart-shaped frames enclosing photographs of Grand Duke Michael (1860-1929) at the top, daughters Anastasia (b. 1892) at the left and Nadezhda (b. 1896) on the right, and son Michael (b. 1898) at the base, with their birth dates and framed scenes of their houses.

Provenance: Although the majority of Grand Duke Michael’s collection of Fabergé was at Luton Hoo, this frame descended in his family, as follows: Countess Sophie Nicholaievna von Merenberg, created Countess Torby; her daughter, Nadezhda (Nada), who married George Mountbatten, 2nd Marquess of Milford Haven; their son, David, 3rd Marques of Milford Haven; and his son, Lord Ivar Mountbatten.

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ALVR Blog: The Legend of Sadko


Once upon a time, in late nineteenth century Russia, there was renewed interest in Russia’s past, and with that, a fascination with Russian fairy tales. This fascination transcended all art forms, from literature and theater to decorative arts. A ceramic charger in A La Vieille Russie’s collection brings this fairytale dream world to life. Executed in the Art Nouveau style, it features scenes from the eleventh- century Novgorod legend of Sadko.*

main view of ceramic charger depicting scenes from the legend of sadko

The oval central section depicts a grotesque octopus-like creature, the rim with Sadko on the right, playing a stringed instrument to three women (left) in diaphanous gowns and jeweled headpieces, on a moonlit shore, with bands of stylized motifs. Designed by Mikhail Vrubel and made by the Kuznetsov Porcelain Factory for the Imperial court.
Russian, 1889-1900.
Width: 28-1/2 inches; height: 24-1/2 inches

As the legend goes, one day a lonely and melancholic Sadko serenades the River Volkhov, proclaiming, “Rich man, poor man—it’s all the same to you. If only you were a woman! I’d marry you and live with you here in the city I love.” His music reaches the bottom of the river, so charming the King of the Sea that he rises to the river’s surface to invite Sadko to play at his palace feast.  As a reward, the King gives Sadko a fish with golden scales.

“Your Majesty, you are too generous!”

“Say no more about it! said the King. “Music is worth far more than gold. If the world were fair, you’d have your fill of riches!”

Sadko quickly sells the golden fish before commencing his journey to the palace deep beneath the ocean waves. Once there, Sadko’s music pleases the King of the Sea so much that he offers one of his daughters in marriage. Sadko chooses a bride, but is warned by the Queen that the slightest embrace will trap him beneath the sea forever, never to return to his beloved Novgorod. With this in mind, Sadko resists the Princess’s charms and awakens to find himself back in Novgorod.

Was it all a dream? Who knows? Sadko lived a good life in Novgorod – he became a wealthy merchant, married, and raised a family. While life was good, he never really forgot what lay beneath the River Volkhov.

“Sometimes still on a quiet evening he would walk out of the city alone, sit on the bank, and send his tinkling music over the water. And sometimes too a lovely head would rise from the river to listen—or perhaps it was only moonlight on the Volkhov.”

Legend has it that the Princess of the Sea can be seen at A La Vieille Russie, where the unusual is usual.TM See her for yourself, for more than an ephemeral glance, at 745 Fifth Avenue.

The end.

*excerpts from Aaron Shepard, The Sea King’s Daughter: A Russian Legend. New York: Atheneum, 1997. http://www.aaronshep.com/stories/032.html (accessed 7/21/20)

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ALVR Blog: A Shakespearean Star (Ruby)


While we cannot enjoy the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park this year, for your viewing pleasure we are pleased to present a production of our own: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, starring July’s birthstone: ruby!

main view, Gold Midsummer Night's Dream Tiffany Brooch with Star Ruby

This Art Nouveau brooch by Tiffany & Co. takes inspiration from one of Shakespeare’s most famous works. The turn-of-the-twentieth-century movement focused on using new, freer forms of expression in an effort to break away from nineteenth-century historicism. Stylistic characteristics included nature, fantasy, curving lines, and female figures. A sinuous form surrounded by winged insects, a dragonfly and moth, and the brooch’s fantasy theme are quintessentially Art Nouveau. In the United States, Tiffany & Co. was the foremost company producing not only jewelry but also decorative art works in the Art Nouveau style. It is only fitting that an early Tiffany Art Nouveau piece would take inspiration from the fairy realm of a Shakespearean play.

The brooch features a 5.84-carat oval cabochon star ruby – referring to the six-pointed star visible within the stone. The use of such a stone in this design is particularly clever, with the lines of the asterism emphasizing the gold spider web surrounding it. The asterism gives the stone a magical, otherworldly quality, an enchanting phenomenon that inspires The Bard in all of us.

Tiffany Midsummer Night's Dream Brooch, ruby

In gemology history and lore, ruby is considered the king of precious gems, a title coming from the Sanskrit word, “ratnaraj.” The stone’s rarity and hardness (second to diamond) befit this title. Ruby was also valued for its perceived powers, like curing inflammatory diseases, predicting misfortune, soothing anger, and bringing success in love.

As a symbol of passion and power, ruby is an appropriate choice for a jewel inspired by one of literature’s most famous marital quarrels. To recap, Oberon and Titania, king and queen of the fairies, are estranged because Titania refuses to give Oberon her Indian changeling. Oberon retaliates by calling upon the fairy Puck to help him create a potion from a flower called “love in idleness.” When the concoction is applied to a sleeping person’s eyelids, they fall in love with the first living creature they see upon awakening.

“Fetch me that flower; the herb I shew’d thee once:
The juice of it on sleeping eye-lids laid
Will make or man or woman madly dote
Upon the next live creature that it sees.”

Oberon hopes Titania will fall in love with an animal so he can shame her into giving up her changeling. The brooch depicts this moment of enchantment, when Oberon applies the potion to Titania’s sleeping eyelids and says:

“What thou seest when thou dost wake,
Do it for thy true-love take,
Love and languish for his sake:
Be it ounce, or cat, or bear,
Pard, or boar with bristled hair,
In thy eye that shall appear
When thou wakest, it is thy dear:
Wake when some vile thing is near.”

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Antiques and the Arts Weekly Speaks with ALVR’s Mark Schaffer


Laura Beach of Antiques and the Arts Weekly (the “Bee”) learns more about Mark Schaffer and his gallery, A La Vieille Russie.  “Mark Schaffer, PhD, is a principal at A La Vieille Russie (ALVR), leading specialists in fine European and American antique jewelry, Fabergé, gold snuffboxes, objets de vertu and Russian decorative and fine arts. The company recently moved to sleek new quarters at 745 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. The sun-splashed gallery is the fifth New York venue for this firm founded in Kiev in 1851. We caught up with the peripatetic dealer…”   Click here for the full article.

We Moved!
New Showroom at 745 Fifth Avenue, Suite 415


Our 745 Fifth Avenue galleries are open! Hours available here
antique miniature suitcase

From Kiev to Paris to New York, A La Vieille Russie is once again on the move – but we’re not going very far!

After 56 years at the same address, and 75 years on the same block, we’re excited to be relocating to a new and equally convenient gallery one block south at 745 Fifth Avenue. The bright new space will allow us to continue to showcase our unparalleled collection of rare antique jewelry, Fabergé, decorative arts, and Russian works of art.

ALVR storefrontIn 1933, we first brought the gallery to New York from Paris and Kiev on the heels of war and revolution. This move will be our fourth since opening that storefront as one of Rockefeller Center’s first tenants. We are one of a handful of art and antiques businesses that have remained in the same family for generations, and over the years developed a reputation for scholarship, leadership, and integrity, while stimulating American taste for Russian art.  We were instrumental in introducing the work of Russian court jeweler Carl Fabergé to American audiences, in forming major museum collections, and in contributing to the continued strong popularity of the jeweler’s work. Today, A La Vieille Russie continues its tradition of offering unusual and important works of art, with a commitment to friendly and knowledgeable service.

ALVR storefront Fifth AvenueWe enjoyed our iconic 781 Fifth Avenue location for over 56 years, where we greeted generations of clients and held groundbreaking exhibitions. Our new location officially opened on December 1st, 2017. In celebration of our new space, we had a special Fabergé exhibition in spring 2018, featuring works lent to Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich, UK for their Royal Fabergé exhibition. In the fall of 2019, we had another exhibition, Deceptively Modern, featuring a collection of jewelry from the 1940s to the 1980s. We continue to participate in The Winter Show, TEFAF, and TEFAF New York Fall.

Please join us as we embark on this new chapter. We look forward to sharing our future with you.

Hidden Histories: Fabergé Objects of Rothschild Provenance


Thus far in our “Hidden Histories” series, we have examined Jewish subjects by non-Jews in Russian art, and Jewish subjects in Russian art by one of their own – Mark Antokolsky. This next installment examines patronage of Fabergé by an internationally prominent Jewish family, the Rothschilds.

Renowned for their wealth and prestige, the Rothschild family had humble beginnings. The dynasty’s founder, Mayer Amshel (1744-1812), reached beyond the confines of the Frankfurt Jewish ghetto by establishing a coin business catering to wealthy collectors from the surrounding principalities. He later opened a money exchange, which became the first Rothschild bank. Mayer Amshel’s five sons would later disperse across Europe, establishing an international banking family.

The family had an extensive interest in the arts, and its members were among the greatest collectors of the nineteenth century, furnishing their homes with a range of historically important art and antiques. These collections encompassed seventeenth and eighteenth century paintings and eighteenth century French decorative art. The homes housing these collections, consisting of large estates in a range of styles throughout Europe, left quite an architectural legacy. One such famous estate is Waddesdon Manor, now owned by The National Trust of the UK, where some of the Rothschild collections remain on view.

The Rothchilds also had an eye for Fabergé and, next to the British Royal family, were among the Fabergé London shop’s most important clients. All members of the famous dynasty patronized the firm, and purchased the majority of their pieces in London. The Rothschild family developed a close relationship with Henry Bainbridge, the manager of the London shop, resulting in custom Fabergé pieces in accordance with their tastes and familial emblems. Bainbridge intended them to be gifts exchanged within the family, but the Rothschilds presented the majority of such items as gifts to others.

One manner of customization was enameling pieces in blue and yellow, the Rothschild racing colors. One such object is a gold and diamond-set match case, illustrated below with its Wigström Workshop drawing, and now on view among the other treasures A La Vieille Russie is exhibiting at London’s prestigious Masterpiece fair.

Faberge Enamel, Gold and Diamond-set Match CaseFaberge Gold and Enamel Match Case Wigstrom Drawing

Not all Rothschild-owned Fabergé pieces bear their iconography. The family’s taste was not limited to customized objects, as evidenced by such works as a gold and enamel rhodonite box (detail pictured below), a Louis XV style sedan chair, a bonbonnière, and a Rothschild portrait brooch.

Faberge Gold and Enamel Rhodonite Box

From seventeenth century art to Fabergé, one can confidently declare, the Rothschilds had excellent taste!

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Comay, Joan, and Lavinia Cohn-Sherbok. Who’s who in Jewish History: After the Period  of the Old Testament. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Habsburg, Géza von, Marina Lopato. Fabergé: Imperial Jeweler. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994.

McCarthy, Kieran.  “Fabergé and the Rothschilds,” in The Rothschild Archive, Review of    the Year April 2004 to March 2005, London: 2005, pp. 33-41.

Tillander-Godenhielm, Ulla, Peter L. Schaffer, Alice Milica Ilich, and Mark A. Schaffer. Golden Years of  Fabergé: Drawings and Objects from the Wigström Workshop.                  New York: A La Vieille Russie, 2000.

Waddesdon Manor. Accessed June 25, 2015. http://www.waddesdon.org.uk/.