WHEN YOU FINISH ogling the gold Easter eggs and the enamel-and-gold picture frames featured in Hillwood Museum’s exhibit of Fabergé splendor, one item stands out: a bell push.
Actually, there’s more than one of them, and they are magical. The Imperial Easter Eggs get all the attention, fashioned from gold and encrusted with precious stones, generally containing a tiny “surprise”(a miniature portrait of the recipient’s children or some other intricate gilded trifle).
But the bell pushes! Looking like small boxes that might sit decoratively on a side table or a writing desk, they are fashioned of silver gilt plus enamel, or carved from a stone such as bloodstone. There is embellishment upon embellishment—one features a little elephant carved from bloodstone standing on a bloodstone base ringed with gold bands and festooning—but each is topped with a small button.
And it’s the function of the button, pushed to summon servants, that reveals the lavish life for which these trinkets were made. It’s a life that came to an end with the Russian Revolution and the murder of the Imperial family, the Romanovs. Which, of course, is how these treasures eventually came to be in the hands of collectors around the world.
Cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post—whose Washington DC home became the Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens—purchased (or received) some of the art objets that crowd her mansion in the late 1920s or early 1930s. The common assumption has been that she bought the Russian pieces while married to Joseph E. Davies, US ambassador to Russia, as Stalin’s government was selling off Romanov treasures to raise money. But official Hillwood records state that the diplomatic couple don’t seem to have bought any Fabergé while in the Soviet Union. Most of Post’s pieces were collected, the museum explains, in the 1960s, long after her Soviet interval and years after her marriage to Davies.
Post’s own lavish lifestyle was the perfect backdrop for a czar’s treasures: She maintained several homes, including Mar-a-Lago, now a club owned by President Trump, and at one time owned (with another husband, E. F. Hutton) the largest seagoing yacht in the world at the time. Her remarkable collection of jewelry, commissioned from Cartier, was the subject of an earlier Hillwood exhibit.
Even those of us with lifestyles not quite so extravagant, and whose contemporary tastes run more to, say, Pottery Barn than to Fabergé, will be beguiled by the craftsmanship that made these objects possible.
Many of the objects in the exhibit were everyday items for the imperial family—a tortoiseshell crochet hook with a gold finial! a cane handle of Siberian nephrite! a gold pencil holder trimmed in diamonds and sapphires so an empress’s fingers need never touch the wood of the pencil! Others, also made by the artisans in Fabergé’s workshops, were made as presentations, gifts of state, special commemorations and awards.
The Imperial Easter eggs are of course the ultimate expression of Fabergé. Publisher Malcolm Forbes managed to collect nine of them (Hillwood has two), which were sold off to a Russian billionaire for millions in 2004 after Forbes’s death. The Kremlin has 10, according to a Forbes Magazine article. the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts boasts five.
Yet the extravagance of the quotidian objects has a gentler appeal. They’re not quite priceless but way out of reach for most of us. Nonetheless, it’s a pleasure to visit them.
“Fabergé Rediscovered” is on view at Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens through January 13, 2019. Hillwood, 4155 Linnean Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20008. 202-686-5807; hillwoodmuseum.org.