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30 march 2020

valentin_skurlov_xx.jpgValentin Skurlov, Ph. D., who is an Honorary Academician of the Russian Academy of Arts, professor, scientific secretary of the Fabergé Memorial Foundation, consulting researcher studying the Fabergé heritage at the Russian department of the Christie's auction house selling antiques, and the evaluator of the art treasures belonging to the RF Ministry of Culture, answers the questions put by the industry information agency Rough&Polished.

You were an authorized person, a friend and co-author of recently deceased Tatiana Fedorovna, a great-granddaughter of Peter Carl Fabergé (also known as Karl Gustavovich Fabergé in Russia), who lived in Switzerland. Tell us about the last years of her activity.

In 2017, Tatiana Fedorovna Fabergé became a co-author of the book ‘Vasily Zuev. The Court’s miniaturist. A painter of the Fabergé firm’. Soon, a new book will be completed and titled almost the same ‘Vasily Zuev and his successors. On the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the miniaturist of the Fabergé firm’. It will be published at the end of April. Unlike the 2017 version, 215 pages, this publication is full, it will have 520 pages, including 165 biographies of the holders of the Fabergé Memorial Foundation awards we founded in 1996.  

What is now with her private archive - is it fully studied?

The private Fabergé archive has not been fully studied. In March last year, Tatiana Fedorovna handed me part of the materials for writing a book devoted to the emigration period (1920-1960) of the Fabergé brothers, Eugene and Alexander, in Paris, she was their niece. This book will, certainly, be completed. However, this is a hard work. It took us seven years to write a book about Agathon Karlovich (1876-1951), the grandfather of Karl Gustavovich Fabergé. It was published in 2012 titled ‘Agathon Fabergé in the Red Petrograd’. The book had four authors, including Tatiana Fedorovna.

For example, such line of their activities as polished diamonds and precious stones in general has not been studied at all. Meanwhile, Tatiana Fabergé told me that her grandfather Agathon Fabergé and his brother Alexander were outstanding gemologists, for example, they could determine by color from which South Africa’s kimberlite pipe the diamond was mined. Agathon was the owner of a unique blue polished diamond he offered Empress Alexandra Fedorovna to purchase on the 10th anniversary of Tsarevich (crown prince of Russian Empire) Alexei in 1914. The queen refused as the polished diamond seemed expensive to her. Then, Varvara Kelch-Bazanova, the daughter of an Irkutsk millionaire, was happy to buy it as she collected jewels. She had a 30-carat stone cut and polished by Fabergé. She was actually known as the ‘diamond’ merchant and not as the owner of seven Fabergé Easter eggs that were as high quality as the Fabergé Imperial Easter Eggs. Franz Birbaum, Fabergé head workmaster, acknowledged in his ‘memoirs’ (1919) that Russian diamonds were inferior to French ones in their artistic merit, but the setting of Russian diamonds was beyond all praise, which was also recognized by foreign competitors. The Russian jewellers were the first to set diamonds in platinum, and this is delicate workmanship.

You once said that diamonds and diamond jewellery reached at least one third of the Fabergé’s works.

Yes, at least 33 percent. Now, it is represented in antiques by less than 2-3 percent. Such is the fate of all, especially ‘diamond’ companies, Fabergé contemporaries - court’s jewellers and purveyors to the royal household - such as Bolin, Gan, Koсhli, Zeftigen ... At present, we can admire their jewellery with precious stones on the pieces of art by great painters only. Agathon Fabergé was responsible for two departments in the firm - the precious stones department and the foreign trade department. The firm’s partner was a British national, Allan Bowe, a native of South Africa, who contributed to obtaining top-quality rough diamonds. The best cutters were in Belgium, by the way, most of them were from tsarist Poland. One of them, Tolkowsky who once lived in Warsaw wrote a manual on diamond cutting in 1919.

Can you give some examples of a Fabergé’s diamond jewellery piece?

Well, for example, the ‘Winter’ jewellery egg is one of 50 imperial Easter eggs made by Carl Fabergé. It was created in 1913 at the request of Emperor Nikolai II as a gift to his mother, Empress Maria Fedorovna, and at that time, it costed 24,600 gold roubles.

The egg is on a rock crystal - pure quartz - base in the form of melting ice, with platinum streams and is set with 1,508 rose-cut diamonds. The egg itself, also from rock crystal, with a moonstone cabochon on top, is divided into two transparent halves, the rim of each is made of platinum studded with 360 polished diamonds. Each half is decorated with the finest engraving looking like ice crystals. The surprise is a platinum latticework basket with two handles decorated with 1,378 rose-cut diamonds. There is an elegant bunch of snowdrops made of white quartz with jade leaves in the basket. The ‘Fabergé 1913’ inscription is engraved on the basket bottom. By the way, this egg was bought in 2002 at the Christie’s New York auction by the Emir of Qatar.

What will now happen to the Memorial Foundation that was headed by Tatiana Fedorovna, will there be changes after she departed this life?

The work of the Foundation continues. Tatiana Fedorovna, the founder of the Foundation launched in April 1996, was its Honorary Chairman until her last day. Nowadays, the Foundation has more than 720 members from 22 countries. I cannot say the exact numbers, because, alas, people pass away - just like Tatiana Fedorovna left us on February 12, three weeks before her 90th birthday. Now, Sergey Ivanovich Kvashnin, a full member of the Russian Academy of Arts, honored artist of the RF, founder of the Volga-Vyatka Mint, and the engraving artist whose name is now widely known both in Russia and in the world, has been elected chairman of the Foundation. Next year, we will celebrate the 25th anniversary of founding the Memorial Foundation of Carl Fabergé. I remain the academic secretary of the Foundation.

What has happened in the Foundation in recent years, what have you been doing?

The Foundation continued to implement its four main tasks:

1. Memorialization, care of graves and monuments. In 2014, a monument was fixed up at the cemetery in Dresden on the grave of Carl Fabergé’s mother; in January 2015, a bronze monument was unveiled to Gustav Fabergé in his homeland in Pärnu (Estonia). We maintain the graves of Agathon Gustavovich, the brother of Carl Fabergé, and the grave of jeweller Mikhail Perkhin at the cemeteries in St. Petersburg.

Next year, we commemorate the 25th anniversary of the monument to Carl Fabergé in the nameless square near the ‘Russkiye samotsvety (Russian Gems)’ company in 1996. Two years later, in 1998, the square was named the ‘Carl Fabergé Square’. This was the first case in the world.

2. Search for the best jewellers who continue Carl Fabergé’s traditions, and they are awarded the order and Foundation plaque of honour. Although, it would seem, by 2016, all those worthy were awarded and mentioned in two monographs dedicated to Franz Birbaum, the head workmaster of the Fabergé firm, and published the same year, but at the same time, a new ‘Vasily Zuev’ order was established to award the miniaturists. In 2017, there were 18 miniature painters awarded this special award, now there are already 80. These are mainly the miniaturists from Rostov-the-Great, the centre of the Russian art of enamelling on metal, as well as those from St. Petersburg and Moscow.

3. The release of books including the ones I have already mentioned and dedicated to Vasily Zuev. I would like to note that in December 2017, my autobiographical book, ‘In Search of the Fabergé Archive’, was published. In 2018, my book ‘The Imperial ‘Empire’ Egg of 1902’ was published in Russian and English. The members of the Foundation participate in numerous conferences dedicated to the Russian history. I’ll mention the conferences held at the St. Petersburg Fabergé Museum (by the way, this is now the largest and best Fabergé museum in the world as for the number of exhibit items), as well as the conference on the Historical Psychology held twice a year by Professor S. N. Poltorak. In recent years, we have been focusing our efforts on researching the historical context, that is, studying the ‘Fabergé epoch’, the biographies of the painters of the ‘Fabergé circle’, the history of jewellery companies, both the Fabergé’s partners and competitors. This allows us to more deeply and accurately estimate the role of the leader - Carl Fabergé. This year, September 24 is a significant memorial date, it is 100 years from the date of his death. The memorial Conference at the Fabergé Museum in St. Petersburg will be held to mark this anniversary. In April, an exhibition dedicated to Fabergé will start at the Armoury Chamber in the Kremlin. Since November last year, the ‘Fabergé and the Court’s Jewellers’ exhibition has been successfully held at the State Historical Museum. Last year and this year, fundraising continued among the Russian jewellers to create a monument to the great jeweller Mikhail Yevlampievich Perkhin on the embankment of Onega Lake in Petrozavodsk.

4. The task of replenishing the inventory numbers database is also being successfully solved, because new numbers regularly appear at the world antique auctions. The database materials are used by antique houses for historical information in their catalogues.

What's new in the study of the Fabergé’s heritage - any historical facts, lines of activity?

In the book ‘Vasily Zuev and His Successors,’ there will be a section called ‘the new Information on the History of the Fabergé Firm’. A big group of talented historians joined a team of researchers studying the Fabergé heritage: associate professors of the Stieglitz Academy A. V. Karpov and N. N. Mutia, an independent researcher from Moscow Dmitry Krivoshey, writer from St. Petersburg Irina Klimovitskaya, historian of the Imperial Porcelain Factory Alexander Kucherov, and a historian from Ulyanovsk Alexander Kozhevin. For five years now, we, a group of members of the Foundation, have been developing the Museum of Vasily Ivanovich Zuev (1870-1941) founded five years ago at the Centre for supplementary Education of Children in the district centre of Cherdakly, 25 km from Ulyanovsk. Vasily Zuev was a son of a Simbirsk tradesman, he lived the last 24 years here. The exhibits of the museum are the miniatures performed by the contemporary painters, as well as genuine sketches by Eugene Fabergé made in the 1930s that were donated by Tatiana Fabergé and also, the portraits dedicated to the Fabergé theme. There are already over 160 exhibits, the museum is highly appreciated by its visitors - first of all, the museum is intended for children and contributes to their patriotic education. S. I. Morozov, the Governor of the Ulyanovsk Region decided to build a separate building for the Vasily Zuev Museum. This is the first museum of the Fabergé’s painter in the world.

Does the Foundation’s line of activities keep on discovering the best jewellers who would continue the traditions?

We continue awarding, mainly in connection with various anniversaries. In the last three years, we have awarded full-fledged members of the Russian Academy of Arts, including Zurab Konstantinovich Tsereteli, the President of the Russian Academy of Arts, People's Artist of the USSR.

What do you think about the current state of the jewellery craft in Russia and its prospects?

This question about the current state of the jewellery craft is not simple, given the difficult economic situation not only in Russia but also in the world. However, jewellery exhibitions and fairs continue to be held. Many jewellers have ‘self-isolated’ to become freelancers, as it is said now, and they are creating something at home. The most successful of them have a certain group of customers. Fortunately, festivals and anniversaries are still celebrated.

What are the modern workmasters lacking today? Can you tell us about any achievements, changes?

Unfortunately, unlike the pre-revolutionary practice, there are no state-guaranteed orders for things of high artistic merit in our country. Although, increasingly more jewellers work on devotional paintings now, which is a growing tendency. The stonecutters have almost disappeared from the field of view; I do not see them at exhibitions. But this does not mean that they have quit stonecutting. Just because of the low demand within our country, they began to work on the foreign markets - they can now be seen in Hong Kong, the United Arab Emirates, and Germany. In Yekaterinburg, there works an outstanding stone-cutting artist Alexei Antonov, who is very famous in the world. He opened a new museum in his city where he displays stone-cut masterpieces continuing the traditions brought in by Fabergé and Denisov-Uralsky.

Working with gold and precious stones is hard, and taking into account the crisis, many jewellery firms are successfully working with silver now - and there are achievements. What modern jewellers are lacking is the state support. However, there are achievements, there are many of them, and these are landmark achievements. We just need to be patient and survive the difficult times.

Galina Semyonova for Rough&Polished