Estate Sale Misidentification Almost leads to Melting of $33M Fabergé Egg

The Third Imperial Easter Egg, made by Carl Fabergé was nearly melted down for scrap value following a series of misidentifications. Only chance saved it, changing from a white elephant to $33-million treasure for a Midwestern scrap dealer. Until its recent rediscovery, it was among eight of the original 50 Imperial Fabergé Eggs lost to time. (Photo: Wartski)

What a difference a few minutes of research can make.

If you haven’t heard by now, collectors around the globe are talking about the discovery of the third Imperial Russian Fabergé egg, identified last week by Kieran McCarthy of London’s Wartski jewelers. The Fabergé community is extremely excited about the find, as the egg has been missing for more than 80 years.

I’m intrigued by the discovery as well, but for a different reason than most: I wonder why it took so long to identify it.

The egg sat on a kitchen shelf in a Midwestern U.S. home for more than 10 years. The egg’s owner was a scrap metal dealer who had purchased it at a flea market in 2002. He bought the egg in order to have it melted down for the value of the gold it contained. Dealing in scrap gold has become a popular pastime in post-recession America. Drive through any city and one can see signs nailed to telephone poles: “We buy scrap gold! Highest prices paid!” Even cable TV’s National Geographic channel has jumped on the bandwagon, with its series titled “Meltdown,” which was introduced last summer. The series tells tales of urban treasure hunters who “search for precious metals in unlikely places hoping to turn junk into gold.” According to National Geographic, revenues in the scrap gold business approach $1 billion annually. 

For 10 years, whenever the Midwestern scrap dealer (he has not been identified) looked at the egg sitting on his kitchen shelf, all he saw was scrap gold. His tunnel vision prevented him from researching the item he possessed.

But the scrap dealer had miscalculated; he overpaid for the egg, he was told. He plopped down $13,000 for it, and everyone he spoke to told him that it wasn’t worth that much. He refused to sell the item at a loss. Instead, he displayed the egg on a kitchen shelf until he decided what to do with it.

For 10 years, whenever the Midwestern scrap dealer (he has not been identified) looked at the egg sitting on his kitchen shelf, all he saw was scrap gold. His tunnel vision prevented him from researching the item he possessed. Was he intrigued by the Cabochon blue sapphires and rose diamonds that encrusted the tripod base, or the lions-paw feet wrapped in gold garlands that supported the tripod? Did he have a hint of curiosity about the Vacheron Constantin watch within the egg, supported by gold hands decorated with sapphires and rose-cut diamonds? Apparently not.

I imagine that eventually the egg became a sore spot for the scrap dealer. He had invested $13,000 in it, and he was in need of money. After 10 years, I suppose some money seemed better than no money, so he determined to sell it. First, he decided, some research was in order. He removed the egg from the shelf and opened it. The inscription on the watch read “Vacheron Constantin,” so he turned to his computer and Googled “Vacheron Constantin egg.” 

The inscription on the watch inside the egg read “Vacheron Constantin,” which would eventually help to reveal its true identity. (Photo: Wartski)

A view of the Vacheron Constantin watch from above. (Photo: Wartski)

After a few minutes of searching, he found an article in The Telegraph (UK) titled “Is this £20 million nest-egg on your mantelpiece?” The article was accompanied by an old black-and-white photo of the egg that was sitting in front of him. What happened next is well documented in the past weeks’ media reports: The scrap dealer contacted Wartskis, Mr. McCarthy identified the egg, and a sale was brokered. The sale price is undisclosed, but estimates put the value at $33 million in U.S. dollars.

I shudder to think how close the egg came to being melted down. There were only 50 of these eggs ever made, all for the Russian Imperial family. This particular egg was given by Alexander III to his wife, Empress Maria Feodorovna, at Easter in 1887. The egg was last seen in public in March 1902 at an exhibition in St Petersburg. During the Bolshevik Revolution (1917), all of the Czar’s properties were confiscated, inventoried, and stored. A 1922 inventory lists the Vacheron Constantin egg but that’s the last official government record of it. All original Fabergé eggs were inscribed with identification numbers, and the official government record notes the number.

In 1922, Joseph Stalin sought to liquidate the Imperial collections for his “treasures to tractors” program, selling the inventoried art and collectibles to wealthy Westerners. It is not known who bought the Constantin egg, but its next appearance was on March 7, 1964, when Parke-Bernet Gallery of New York (a division of Sotheby’s) auctioned it for $2,450. At the time, it was not identified as the Vacheron Constantin egg; instead, the catalog description noted that it was a “Gold Watch in Egg-Form Case.” Auction buyers remain anonymous, so the buyer was identified only as a “female buyer from the Deep South.” 

After a few minutes of searching, the owner of the egg found an article in The Telegraph (UK) titled “Is this £20 million nest-egg on your mantelpiece?” The article was accompanied by an old black-and-white photo of the egg that was sitting in front of him.

The “female buyer” died in the early 2000s, and her estate was liquidated. Shortly thereafter, the egg was found by our scrap dealer at a Midwestern flea market.

Sometime between 1922 and 1964, the eggs’ provenance was lost. Certainly, the Westerner who bought the egg from the Russians knew what he had, but when the egg showed up in New York for auction no one—not even Sotheby’s appraisers—knew what it was. It’s not known if the “female buyer from the Deep South” knew what she had, either; she left no appraisal records or special instructions in her will. Clearly, the auctioneer or estate sale operator who liquidated her estate didn’t know the eggs provenance; neither did the flea market operator who sold the egg to the scrap gold dealer.

The discovery of the Vacheron Constantin Fabergé egg betrays a long line of missed opportunities, and creates more questions than it answers. What happened to the original Russian provenance? Who owned the egg until 1964? Why didn’t Parke-Bernet-Sotheby’s appraisers recognize the egg? Didn’t anyone think to remark that a jewel-encrusted golden egg containing a handmade antique watch might be a Fabergé?

The Third Imperial Fabergé Easter Egg displayed among Marie Feodorovna’s Fabergé treasures in the Von Dervis Mansion Exhibition, St. Petersburg, March 1902 (Photo: Wartski)

I suppose I can forgive the folks at Parke-Bernet. If their auction was the first time the egg had been seen in public for 42 years, it’s doubtful that had any way to trace its’ provenance, and Fabergé copies abound. The Cold War was on, after all, and Russia probably wasn’t returning phone calls from decadent Western capitalists.

But shame on the estate liquidator and/or executor who sold the egg after the death of the “female buyer from the Deep South.” Yes, Google was only a few years old at the time and The Telegraph had not yet published their article on the egg, but qualified appraisers were listed in the phone book. Did no one think to call an appraiser?

The story of the Constantin Fabergé egg should be a wake-up-call to all executors and estate liquidators. Resources abound for identifying and valuing collectibles—WorthPoint foremost among them. To collectors, the message is: keep the provenance of your collection with your collection. If you are missing provenance, have your items appraised and keep the appraisal with your collection. Note in your will the contents of your collections, and where the provenance and/or appraisals can be found. Your heirs will appreciate your efforts.

“In the Imperial Easter Eggs you see Fabergé at his very best … nothing which has so far come
from a goldsmith’s workshop surpasses these productions in craftsmanship and ingenuity,”
said Henry Bainbridge, Carl Fabergé’s London agent. (Photo: Wartski)

There are still seven of the original 50 Fabergé Imperial eggs missing. You may not have one of them, but chances are excellent that you have items in your home right now that are more valuable than you realize. The ability to recognize the hidden value of your personal property is as close as your computer. Remember what a few minutes of research made in the story of the Constantin egg.

The Third Imperial Easter Egg will be exhibited at Wartski, 14 Grafton Street, London, W1S 4DE, from April 14-17 between 11a.m. and 5 p.m. This will be the first time it has been seen in public for 112 years.

Wayne Jordan is a Virginia-licensed auctioneer, Certified Personal Property Appraiser and Accredited Business Broker. He has held the professional designations of Certified Estate Specialist; Accredited Auctioneer of Real Estate; Certified Auction Specialist, Residential Real Estate and Accredited Business Broker. He also has held state licenses in Real Estate and Insurance. Wayne is a regular columnist for Antique Trader Magazine, a WorthPoint Worthologist (appraiser) and the author of two books. For more info, visit Wayne Jordan Auctions or Resale Retailing with Wayne Jordan.

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  • Suzanne V

    A fascinating story. While it’s terrible that the executors of the Deep South mystery woman did not exercise due diligence, we have no way of knowing whether at the time of her death, the owner had an estate that merited or could even have afforded an appraiser. Perhaps this was the only truly valuable thing she still possessed. Stranger things have happened.

    The group I would least forgive in all this is Parke-Benet-Sotheby’s. How is it possible that an international auction house (founded, according to its website, in 1744) would not know of one of the most famous jewelry creations of all time? And how could any art professional holding such an impeccable piece be so obtuse about its rarity or exceptional value? What on earth did they think they had? Even in the Sixties, the Fabergé eggs were well-known and ignorance of provenance does not excuse ignorance of value.

    It seems unbelievable and is certainly very very sad that no one en route to the scrap merchant sufficiently appreciated the egg’s beauty or value. (Surely a depressing commentary on the marginalization of art education in our society.) But neither the scrap merchant nor the flea-market seller pretended to have years of education and experience appraising valuable objects, and their only clients were themselves.

    • Christopher Stowe

      I too am surprised, that Wayne Jordan should have seen fit to excuse the ignorance and incompetence of the so called experts at Parke-Bernet in New York in 1964 and chosen to direct his amazement at the executors of the mystery lady from the deep South. Surely the phrase “Deep South” would imply a provincial and somewhat less august understanding of anything with an Imperial Russian provenance than that which should have prevailed at an Internationally acclaimed Auction House?
      It has always been a matter of amazement to me that, when a ‘sleeper’ has been unearthed at an auction; the auctioneer has the audacity to claim any form of credit for it at all: after all, was it not the auctioneer who erroneously advised his client as to the value and sales potential of his property, and set a disproportionately low estimate or reserve?
      Too many of the long established auction houses, rely too heavily and indeed, have little more than the age of their businesses, to prop up their reputations.
      This discovery should be a wake up call to everyone in the art world, that expertise is undoubtedly worth more than social connections.

    • I agree with Suzanne. I’m an online vender of vintage items and acquire an awful lot of goodies from charity shops that have estates donated to them by heirs who can’t be bothered with an appraisal or figure their parents had nothing of value left. I’ve never found a Faberge egg but have discovered a ton of stuff worth far more than I’ve paid. However there is no excuse for an international auction house not at least being slightly curious. I’m wondering if the auction houses automatically discount items submitted by non-affluent families as having no value.

      Any family who had a WWII vet in their lives could have treasures in their homes. People in war torn countries traded their valuables for cigarettes and coffee. Not all art and artifacts confiscated by the Nazis ended up in the salt mines. And much of it was traded or “discovered” by GIs cleaning up Hitler’s mess.

  • korian

    I agree with most posters; the folks at the Park should have identified this egg correctly. If that had occurred, its story sure would be different.

    In the past few years, mostly at local auctioneers, I’ve been seeing two things: 1) Auction houses are continuing to misidentify pieces for sale, and in many cases, it’s done on purpose. Buyer Beware wasn’t something you had to worry about at the more reputable houses; that’s no longer true. I’ve seen fakes mixed in with real items. I’ve seen valuable items placed/hidden in other lots so “friends” of the auctioneer could get them. This I can vouch for because it happened to me.

    At one auction, a local one, I was looking through a few boxes early on. In one box I found a number of valuable items right near the bottom. Among them were pristine WWII posters—the Iwo Jima ones, full size and window display, packs of those old president post cards—items that yelled valuable to any auction searcher looking for the better items for the main auction. I knew I wanted the box, so we hung around the area. A short time later we saw a lady approach the owner (the lead auctioneer). They talked, then he pointed over in our direction. It seems she knew exactly what box to look through, zeroing in on the war poster box. She quietly and quickly looked through its contents, then stood up, placing the box right between her feet to discourage anyone from looking at it. When I saw her do that I knew she knew of the treasures inside. So I began to look through a few boxes nearby that would be in the “choice of” lot. One box I “oohed” and “awed” over, whispering to my husband about the contents. I made sure the people around me that this one box next to me had desirable items (to me).

    Then the auctioneer began with our group of boxes, choice. The lady and I bid against each other. I kept glancing towards the box of my feet. As the bid went to $74, she slowed. I could see her thinking: that guy wants the box by his foot; I’m safe, I hope I’m safe. So she let me have the winning bid. Then, when the auctioneer asked what box I wanted, I pointed to the one between the lady’s feet and said, “That one!” Well, that woman’s jaw just about hit the floor. And as I said “excuse me” to get the box, she gave me the meanest look.

    I immediately brought the box to my car, and when I returned, I saw that woman talking at the auction manager. She was yelling at him. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw her pointing over at me. Some sort of cheating went on, I know it. Do I ho back there? Not as much. But when I do, I go early to hunt through boxes, just to see if they’re hiding anything in one “special” box.

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