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June 27, 2013

An empire of luxury

Faberge's fortunes rose and fell with the Russian czar

Faberge eggs have always made a strong first impression.

Czar Alexander lll gave the first one to his wife, Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, in 1885, and she was so delighted by its rubies, gold, and ingenious construction that the exchange of Faberge eggs became an Easter tradition in the royal family.

Visitors to “Faberge Revealed,” the new exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, can get a sense of Feodorovna’s reaction when they see the Imperial Peter the Great Easter Egg, the first item in the show.

Created in 1903 from gold, platinum, diamonds, rubies, sapphire, ivory and crystal, it is one of only 50 imperial eggs that Faberge created, 42 of which are still known to exist.

“These, of course, were the most spectacular products of the House of Faberge — and among the most beautiful art objects ever created,” said Dean Lahikainen, curator of American decorative art at PEM.

But if the many exquisite works in this show leave a lasting impression, it is also because of the story of their production and the bloody times in which they were created.

The House of Faberge produced an estimated 150,000 items in its 35 years of existence, generating around $175 million a year in business, Lahikainen said. And every item it created was unique.

More than 230 of these appear in the exhibit, all from the Lillian Thomas Pratt collection at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which has the largest Faberge collection in the United States.

In addition to four imperial Easter eggs, the exhibit includes a range of utilitarian items like snuff boxes, parasol handles, tankards, cups and serving dishes. There are also cases filled with miniature carvings of animals inspired by Japanese netsuke, made from silver or semiprecious stones native to Russia.

“They were whimsical creations, things to delight, to put on a shelf and enjoy,” Lahikainen said.

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