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The Perils of Faberge

Jan 06 2021

Given Faberge’s immense popularity and relative scarcity, it is no surprise that fakes abound. And with so many fakes – good, bad, and indifferent, it becomes a challenge identifying authentic period Faberge objects. After scanning a number of advisories on the subject, we attempt to collate the better advice, though our thoughts are by no means exhaustive or definitive.

While an educated collector or analyst can become competent in properly identifying Faberge items, ultimately a high priesthood controls what is publicly accepted as authentic period Faberge. Generally these experts come from Christie’s, Sotheby’s, A La Vielle Russie, and Wartski. Secondary authorities at Bonham’s, I  M Chait, Leslie Hindman, and a very scattered few are allowed to chime in, but their voices are incidental to the big dealers.

However, even the top tier experts come to sharp disagreement, especially when significant sums of money are at stake as happened in 2005 after it was determined that the Malcolm Forbes estate laid a bad egg on Russian billionaire Victor Vekselberg in a sale brokered by Sotheby’s.

Sharp words of disagreement were exchanged by the various parties after the highly regarded Faberge authority Valentin Skurlov declared the egg Spring Flowers a fake on account of at least 10 discrepancies in the composition and markings of the egg.

The total transaction amounted to more than 100 million USD and 180 pieces, most of which ultimately ended up in a museum founded by Vekselberg. While the disagreement has never been resolved, documents discovered in the 1990s revealed that the egg was not an imperial egg as once thought, but rather an egg given to a member of the royal family, a demotion with a material effect on value.

While we require another article to examine each of Skurlov’s objections, he makes the stock arguments about the assay marks being wrong, the quality of stones being too poor, and lack of proper provenance. We in fact believe that he is correct on some points, and incorrect on others, with the weight of the evidence suggesting that the egg is a fake. But don’t tell that to Mr Vekselberg.

Our point is that experts, despite their grand pretenses, are not always correct, and have no warrant for infallibility contrary to their self flatteries.

Nevertheless criteria raised by Skurlov are indeed standard devices for assessing authenticity, and toward that end we review several tests to properly identify a genuine Faberge.

The first rule is that quality and character alone authenticates Faberge, but this rule requires seasoned judgment as Peter Schaffer, owner of A La Vielle Russie, alluded in a 2009 interview with Christel McCanless, another highly regarded Faberge researcher.

In other words, while there are rules, they are not mathematical theorems which have mechanical and automatic veracity or universality. In this regard, Schaffer noted that a fine bell push had 4 poor quality emeralds, but that their overall composition enhanced the beauty of the item.

Faberge objects have a unity of composition and elegance which is nearly impossible to fake, although the makers of Spring Flowers succeeded admirably. To help novices separate the wheat from the chaff, Steve Kirsch has put together a fine portfolio of pictures showing authentic Faberge and fake Faberge oftentimes referred to as Fauxberge.

The general impression, even without examining the close-ups, is that the fakes are garish, gaudy, tacky, clumsy, and even trashy. But sometimes the reproductions are more sophisticated which requires the observer to pull out other tools for authenticating the object.

Although marks cannot be relied upon to authenticate a Faberge piece, they can be used to disqualify them if incompatible marks are found. For example many fakes have the maker’s mark of Henrik Wigstrom, yet use Moscow assay marks. The problem is that Wigstrom worked in the St Petersberg factory, and thus would not have a Moscow assay mark on his work.

Regarding the presence of marks, Schaeffer noted that lasers are very often used in reproducing marks, so the stamps must be relegated to secondary or tertiary value.

One very useful technique offered by Schaffer was the magnification test. An authentic Faberge will look as good at 1x magnification as at 10x, whereas fakes will degrade as magnification exposes weakness and incompetence.

Beginning collectors and amateur experts often make the mistake of looking for pristine perfection on Faberge, having been wowed by the fabled legend of Faberge quality. While the firm was certainly in a league of its own, one must remember that in its short 32 years of existence, it produced, according to some estimates, at least 250,000 different pieces, almost all of them unique and frequently custom ordered.

Given this relatively large output, the normal curve comes into play – hopefully along with common sense – that not all Faberge can be 6 sigma exemplars. In other words, not everyone’s children can be above average.

Furthermore, the pieces made for the imperial family received far greater attention and luxuries than those created for a broader and more common market. Faberge produced more than just imperial eggs, and some of the pieces have less distinctiveness and value, and thus must be graded on a sliding scale.