LONDON — In London's posh Mayfair district on Grafton Street, just around the corner from where international art dealers and high-end jewelry brands are clustered, the adage about not being fooled by appearances rings truer than ever.
Here there is a branch store of the contemporary jewelry brand launched by the mining consortium Gemfields. The brand reintroduces the legendary name Fabergé, and the 3-year-old shop, with its glossy lilac-colored front, takes its inspiration from a guilloché enamel Fabergé egg. Jeweled eggs were one of the specialties of the famous St. Petersburg jeweler Peter Carl Fabergé (1846-1920).
The contrast with the store's direct neighbor couldn't be more stark. "Wartski of Llandudno," as a sign mounted on the facade reads, is located in a building representative of the 1970s "brutalist" style of architecture. The store's five display windows, each framed by darkly patinated bronze panels, create an almost severe effect.
Only collectors, or people conversant with that famous English understatement and eccentricity, will recognize that this establishment with a name most people have never heard of is actually one of the planet's most exclusive dealers in old jewelry, objets d'art made from the most precious gems and metals, and original Fabergés. Instead of gem stones the size of pigeon eggs, like those displayed at Gemfields right next door, at Wartski's you'll find items such as hammered silver goblets and finely chiseled bowls, a crystal carafe with a silver chimpanzee-head stopper, a small round enamel table clock or a brooch of two diamond frogs with sapphire tummies and ruby eyes.
Near the entrance of Wartski's are the coats of arms of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles, as Wartski is a supplier to the court. The arms of William, Duke of Cambridge, are still missing, although the Duke had the wedding ring he gave his wife Catherine made by Wartski.
"If you want to be literal about it, we are a kind of general store," says Kieran McCarthy, a polite gentleman wearing a navy blue suit. Since 1995, the Fabergé expert has been working at Wartski's, a family-owned company founded in 1865 in Bangor, Wales, by Morris Wartski. (They later relocated to the seaside resort of Llandudno in Wales, and then, in 1911, to London.) "We will acquire for you whatever you collect or would like to have, whether it's 18th century gold boxes or dog collars fashioned from precious materials," he says.
A fondness for Fabergé
Some of the most sought-after pieces are those both large and small that come from the workshop of Peter Carl Fabergé, which between the turn of the century and the Russian Revolution was the venue of choice for gift-buying tsars, members of royal houses and the international high finance elite like the Rothschild family.
The end of the Russian empire in 1917 spelled the end of Fabergé"s London branch, and it wasn't long before the Soviets liquidated the entire business. So it was Wartski that saw to it that collectors, including Britain's Queen Mary, were kept supplied with the Fabergé objects they desired — little figures of animals, flowers, enamel picture frames and cigarette cases, and bejeweled bonbonnières, walking stick handles, and letter openers made from agate, nephrite and mountain crystal.
In charge of acquisition was then-Wartski owner Emanuel Snowman, who possessed both charm and considerable business savvy. In the 1920s and 1930s, he personally traveled to Moscow many times to purchase from the Soviets as many of the tsars' treasures as he could transport home. Among other things, he brought back nine imperial Fabergé eggs.
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Snowman's "Rosebud" Fabergé egg — Photo: Mikhail Ovchinnikov
Wartski managing director Geoffrey Munn says it's a "tragedy" that the imperial collection was broken up, which seems somewhat paradoxical given that Wartski's success is in large part due to dealing in these once highly personal items. "Our approach goes over and above buying and selling things," says Munn, who with his mixture of Queen's English, wit, and occasional grimaces is so very British you might mistake him for a Monty Python member.
"We work within the capitalist system, but in that regard Wartski is like a dinosaur that bites its own tail," he says. "A great deal of what we sold at one time comes back to us after several generations. By reselling these items, we feed them back into the flow of history."
Objects of "supernatural value"
The Wartski approach has always reflected personal interests and a fascination for "things that take your breath away when you look at them," says Munn, one of Great Britain's leading jewelry experts who has worked for Wartski for 41 years. "We are a very small company, which is why we deal exclusively in things we like — and it goes without saying at the very highest level."
Kieran McCarthy, who, in addition to being a Fabergé expert also has a special interest in early Anglo-Saxon gold objects, says it's not always about the value of a piece. The dealer relates that he recently bought a gold ring dating from the 9th century. "It only cost 400 pounds $650," he says. You can't even buy a suit for that."
Munn, who is the author of a standard reference work on tiaras, adds that he too often makes spontaneous purchases, such as the Cartier tiara he recently acquired.
As different as the two pieces are, both found buyers quickly. "We hardly have any walk-in customers, but we more than make up for that in regular customers with whom we cultivate long-lasting relations marked by trust," McCarthy says. "If I call a client in Scandinavia and tell him about the ring, he will buy it without having seen it."
Sometimes, though, the items in question are of great value, such as the imperial Fabergé egg — one of three believed to have been lost — that Wartski sold last spring. The very mention of this exciting sale has Munn and McCarthy fidgeting like schoolboys in their chairs. The piece is an original from the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg and still bears the Soviet registration numbers. The first customer to whom they offered the extremely rare find bought it immediately for a price thought to be on the far side of £20 million ($32.5 million).
"That we finally displayed the egg in our rooms for four days, that was perhaps showing off a bit," Mann says. "But there are objects of supernatural value that basically don't even belong to the buyer but to the whole world. To exhibit the egg again before it might possibly be locked into a safe — we quite simply owed that to the Fabergé community."
Wearing pieces of history
Global interest in Fabergé is huge, and continues to grow, McCarthy says. And that's not just because of the huge prices that make even a pair of cufflinks with the Fabergé seal attractive investment objects. "Fabergé is like Hollywood, with the same ingredients: Easter eggs, flowers, animals, fallen dynasties, treasure, crazy monks, and a murdered, incredibly good-looking family," Munn says. "It awakens a kind of childish enthusiasm in people."
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Peter Carl Fabergé at work circa 1900 — Photo: levshei
The egg's extremely wealthy buyer, who is constantly traveling around the world in his Lear jet, did not view the purchase as an investment. He bought it because he fell in love with it, because it touched something within him, McCarthy says. To view old pieces by makers like Cartier, Boucheron and Lalique as investment objects is wrong, even though they stand a good chance of their valuations rising.
"When, for example, a woman buys an Art Deco necklace that makes her look like a goddess when she wears it, she is also getting hand-crafted art, the likes of which no longer exist," McCarthy says. "And she's wearing a piece of history around her neck. If it later turns out to be worth double, super. But if not, she still has an incredibly beautiful necklace."
One of these magnificent items designed by New York jeweler Olga Tritt is a watch made of platinum, aquamarines and diamonds that is priced at £300,000 ($490,000) at Wartski's. The sight of so much sumptuous beauty is dizzying, as it is one of those supernatural objects that make any watch in the same price category pale by comparison. Not for sale are two further bits of art history that McCarthy fetches from the safe at the back of the store. One is a delicate tiara of diamonds and sapphires that Prince Albert designed and had made for his wife, the young Queen Victoria. She's wearing it in the famous portrait by Franz Winterhalter.
The other is a Fabergé brooch with a huge Siberian aquamarine surrounded by diamonds, the first gift Tsar Nicholas II gave to his fiancée Alix von Hessen, later Empress Alexandra Feodorovna. The brooch is one of the purchases Emanuel Snowman made during a trip to Moscow, and it is among the tsars' confiscated treasures. Apparently sewn into clothing, it accompanied the tsar and his family on their last trip to Yekaterinburg. After the murder of the Romanovs, the brooch, along with banal items like soap dishes, socks and shoes, was on the list of personal effects found with the bodies. "This," says a genuinely moved McCarthy, "is authentic Fabergé."
Then with a nod of his head in the direction of their new — and eponymous — neighbor, he says, "That will never be Fabergé. Basically it's art historical theft. A modern monstrosity."