Faberge eggs deal brings hope of more cultural returns

Friday, February 6, 2004

MOSCOW -- The purchase of nine Czarist-era Faberge eggs by a Russian tycoon who promised to return them to their homeland has prompted optimism in cultural circles that other great artworks sold by the Soviets could be returning home.

The purchase of the eggs -- intricate treasures of jewels and precious metals -- from the estate of U.S. publisher Malcolm S. Forbes by industrialist Viktor Vekselberg has attracted wide coverage in Russia, where most news about the ultra-wealthy recently has been about their imprisonment or moves to buy foreign sports teams.

"It's a sign that Russian capitalists are beginning to spend their money correctly," said Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of St. Petersburg's Hermitage museum, the primary repository of Czarist-era art.

"There has always been this dream, but I wasn't sure it would come true. This is the first time that a major treasure sold by the Soviet authorities has returned to Russia," Piotrovsky said.

Aristocrats and wealthy merchants who fled the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution took substantial amounts of art with them; much of what was left was sold off by Soviet authorities, who were both strapped for cash and theoretically opposed to aristocratic excess.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russians have become increasingly interested in regaining their departed treasures. Wealthy Russians have gone on art buying sprees in the West, but few of the pieces have been brought home.

However, a recent change in the law could encourage the return of artworks by allowing objects with a significant cultural value to be imported without the normal payment of a whopping 30 percent import duty.

An official at the Russian Ministry of Culture attributed the return of both a Rubens painting and a tiara in the last month to the change.

Vekselberg, vice president of the oil company TNK-BP and with an estimated net wealth of $2.5 billion, bought the eggs as part of a 180-piece collection of Faberge items for his Bond of Time cultural foundation.

The purchase price wasn't disclosed, although Sotheby's auction house had estimated the entire collection at as much as $90 million. The Coronation Egg -- the most valued piece -- could have fetched $24 million at auction, Sotheby's said.

The president of Vekselberg's foundation, Svyatoslav Rybov told television channel NTV, the purchase price was "not less than $90 million and not more than $120 million."

The foundation has decided the Faberge collection will go to a Russian museum, Rybov said, although he did not specify which one or whether the collection would be donated or loaned.

Two museums are likely contenders -- the State Armory in the Moscow Kremlin, which already has 10 Faberge eggs, or the Hermitage, which has none.

Most of the eggs created by Faberge, including the Forbes collection, had been housed in the State Armory before being sold in 1922 by Soviet authorities. The museum is now overjoyed that the collection is returning to Russia and hopeful that it may be allowed to display it again.

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