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The scramble to save the treasure of the Tsars

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Issue 2565
A Faberge egg - no yolking matter
A Faberge egg – no yolking matter

After revolution overthrew Russia’s ruling Tsars, a lucrative industry grew around relics of the old regime

There were some 50 imperial Faberge eggs made—gifts for the families of Russia’s ruling Tsars before the revolution.

Most jewellery is anonymous. The significance lies only in its cost. There is more manufactured rarity than actual rarity in gems.

The jeweller Faberge wanted to give each egg significance, with a private meaning for the giver and the receiver.

So the first egg in 1885 was two and a half inches tall with a gold yolk inside. Inside the yolk, a gold hen sits on a gold nest.

This is an image of the queen, mother to the country and to the tsar’s children.

It is also a joke (just)—the egg has given birth to the hen. Inside the hen, a diamond crown. Inside the crown, a ruby pendant, a symbol of the Tsar’s love.

The surprises aren’t intended for us—they were the eggstravagant gifts of the ultra-rich. The poor were not meant to see treasure.

They are about private showing off. The 1900 Trans-Siberian Railway Egg contains a foot-long miniature clockwork railway, with a platinum locomotive that pulls gold carriages.


The eggs are a metaphor for the Romanov regime—ostentatious, hugely costly, and useless.

In 1923 Faberge eggs seized during the Revolution were put up for sale. But there were few buyers. Much of the jewellery was dismantled or melted down for scrap.

This changed when an American con man Armand Hammer introduced the eggs to the US.

He bought trunks from a theatrical company, loaded them with a huge variety of exotic Russian goods—including two real imperial eggs—and went on a tour.

He sold china and linen from hotels as “Romanoff Treasure”. He used real Faberge stamps to pass off all kinds of tat as the real thing.

All came in a special Faberge case accompanied by documents “proving” it to be of Romanov origin.

He was wildly successful. Once a millionaire or two had paid staggering prices for an egg they became the fashionable thing to have—and up the prices went.

The eggs were part of an industry that grew up after the Bolsheviks killed the Tsar and his family. The orthodox church and various exiles had an interest in keeping the faith in the Romanovs alive.

Nikolai Sokolov investigated the Tsar’s execution site for the counter?revolutionaries. He climbed down the mine shaft the bodies were first dumped in.

Sokolov boxed up dog bones and other “evidence” then hawked it round Europe.


Other things claiming to be bits of the Tsar were taken round in jars—including fingers and fat—to be honoured.

Best of all were live relics. So the Tsar’s daughter Anastasia had apparently escaped Russia. It led to various movies and books. At least eight people claimed to be her.

The most famous was Anna Anderson who had a far more worthy origin as a Polish factory worker.

Counter-revolutionary dreams morphed into the Cold War and a romantic admiration for the old royal family.

And Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg bought some eggs a decade ago for more than £80 million. He brought the eggs full circle.

Russian revolutionary poet Mayakovsky wrote, “A crown may be bestowed by us but only with a mineshaft.”

Or as Lenin never put it, you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.

This is part of a series of weekly articles on the Russian Revolution

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