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, Geza 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/.

Fabergé World War I Copper Tea Glass Holder


World War I era copper and brass tea glass holder, feigning austerity.

By Fabergé, 1914-1915
Height: 3 inches

Fabergé Lapis Lazuli Desk Seal


Lapis lazuli desk seal set with diamonds, the translucent enamel featuring musical devices, and with lapis lazuli sealstone.

By Fabergé, St. Petersburg, ca. 1900
Length: 2 3/4 inches

Provenance: Lansdell K. Christie, an American businessman and art collector

Exhibited: The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, 1961; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1965. A similar seal was acquired by King George V, and now in the Royal Collection.

Fabergé Rhodonite Tray


Silver-mounted oval rhodonite tray. With its original case.

By Fabergé, St. Petersburg, ca. 1910.
Length: 14 inches

Fabergé Rhodonite Tray, box

World War I Era Fabergé

Faberge copper pot

At the time of the Great War, the sons of Russian nobility wrote to their mothers that they had food at the front, but had nothing to cook it in. In response, their mothers commissioned cookware by Fabergé, not knowing of any other sources.

For the centennial of World War I, we present one such object: a copper and brass soup pot lined in pewter, with the imperial warrant and “K. Fabergé/war/1914” stamped in Cyrillic on its underside. Simple and utilitarian, lacking ostentation and splendor, it is an object unexpected from the jeweler’s workshops.

Fabergé adapted to the drop in orders and wartime austerity measures by making items out of less expensive metals like copper and gunmetal. However, some of these items merely feigned austerity and there are some silver objects ‘gilded’ to resemble copper and brass.

Nonetheless, Fabergé contributed much to supporting the war effort. Early in the war Fabergé offered his workshops for making munitions, but did not begin doing so until a year later when he finally received a response to his offer. His silver factory in Moscow produced hand grenades and casings for artillery shells and his Petrograd workshops made syringes and other smaller items.

Fabergé lost much of his workforce to conscription and pleaded with the authorities to allow twenty-three to remain who were particularly vital to the business, including the only master enameler remaining.

Fabergé wartime objects like this soup pot represent a turning point in history. The revolution and civil war that followed ensured there would not be a return to the opulence of preceding centuries. And so this soup pot, a Fabergé piece stripped of the gilding, enameling, and fine jewels long associated with that name, is made out of practicality rather than ornament, marking the end of an era.

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Collecting Animals РFaberg̩

Faberge Golden Quartz Lion

On your expedition to our menagerie, you will find an assortment of Fabergé animals. These hardstone carvings do more than mimic nature, but capture the personalities of individual animals.

Fabergé applied this attention to detail to a number of hardstone animal portraits, most notably his famous commission from King Edward in 1907 to replicate all of the domestic and farmyard animals of the British royal family’s Sandringham estate. Wax models were made from life, amounting to more than a hundred different figures. Fabergé received many commissions for portraits of adored domestic pets, his clientele appreciating such commitment to accuracy.

Fabergé’s lapidary studio broke away from the dry realism of traditional hardstone carvings, remaining loyal to detail but imbuing his creatures with whimsical charm. First, a wax model was made. Then, stones were selected based one what best conformed to a particular animal’s characteristics and sculptor-stonecarvers carefully noted poses and often exaggerated certain features. A reputation for this sort of attention to detail significantly distinguished Fabergé from his competitors.

Fabergé’s animal creations were quite representative of the animal kingdom, comprising domestic and farm animals, wild creatures, and insects and reptiles. You’ll find a selection here, in Animals As Art: Wearable and Collectible.

Fabergé Silver-mounted Holly and Amboyna Wood Frame


Silver-mounted holly and amboyna wood frame.
The use of two contrasting color woods set off by a gilded bow and garland creates a dramatic presentation.

By Fabergé, St. Petersburg, ca. 1900
10-1/4 x 8-1/2 inches