Duelling oligarchs, priceless tiny jewels and internet beef: Tomas Weber documents an unseemly scramble.
The realm of Fabergé today is a world of ancien régime whimsy drenched in oil and gas fortunes. Once sought after by old money in search of enchantment, the bejewelled eggs and stone-carved animals once favoured by the Romanovs have been absorbed into the legal battles and personal feuds of Russia’s energy and tech tycoons. In the background, though, still hums a venerable network of dealers and hobbyists who make a living from the exacting work of proving that a piece of jewellery is the real deal. Last January, a London-based art dealer, Andre Ruzhnikov, alleged on his blog that the recent exhibition at the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, ‘Fabergé – Jeweller to the Imperial Court,’ contained numerous forgeries. Some fakes, he said, were ‘brand new or made in the last few years’.
Ruzhnikov’s blog has been causing trouble in the Russian art world for a while. Matching connoisseurship with cutesy photoshops and puerile jibes, he alleged that Alexander Ivanov, a wealthy art collector, had purchased relatively cheap items at London auction houses that were not marked ‘Fabergé’ but had, with the assistance of Mikhail Piotrovsky – the director of the Hermitage – ended up in the exhibition. ‘How has this shambles come to pass?’ wrote Ruzhnikov. ‘Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe there’s something we’re not meant to know.’ Accompanying Ruzhnikov’s allegations are illustrations: an image of Piotrovsky (the son of Boris, the late archaeologist and previous Hermitage director; the father of Boris, who some say is next in line) with a psychedelic tie-dye filter and a third eye. Ivanov’s face gets all stretched out onto Peter Jackson’s Gollum. ‘Mikhail Piotrovsky must be mad,’ Ruzhnikov later blogged. ‘Did someone spike his morning vodka with a dash of novichok?’
Eventually, the world’s second-largest museum could no longer bear the steady stream of mockery out of www.ruzhnikhov.com/news. A press conference was organised to set things straight. And so Ivanov, at a seat at the distant end of a wooden table in a panelled room inside the museum, launched into an hour-and-a-half-long monologue, which veered between defending the Fabergé exhibition, to which he had lent items from his personal collection, which he keeps in a German spa town, and a bizarre tirade against his detractors. ‘Ruzhnikov has committed a crime punishable by a lengthy prison sentence in the United States,’ he said, ‘Don’t let him think he can sit things out in London and that nothing will happen. He’ll be taken to America with cuffs slapped on him’.
Born in Moscow, Ruzhnikov wanted nothing more than to get out of Russia, but he needed something to do in the West. In 1968, he sold his first Orthodox icon for $80 to an English foreign correspondent, sneaking out of the reporter’s apartment afterwards with the dollar bills slipped in his shoe in case he happened to be stopped by the KGB. He continued to sell art, building a career as an icon dealer, and finally left the Soviet Union with his English wife in the 1970s: they went first to Oxford, where, on his second day there, the choice of meat behind the counter in a butcher’s precipitated a near-breakdown, encouraging Ruzhnikov to then move to Silicon Valley, his suitcase loaded with smuggled icons.
Ruzhnikov’s career really took off, though, once he started working with Viktor Vekselberg, an oil and tech billionaire and one of Russia’s most influential oligarchs. Vekselberg has long cultivated close ties in the West. He met with Obama and Bush Jr, donated to the Clinton Foundation and Stanford. In 2017, he showed up at Trump’s swearing-in ceremony. Around the same time, a company with links to Vekselberg supposedly transferred half a million dollars into a company account controlled by Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, who had previously used that account to pay $130,000 to Stormy Daniels, the adult film star who claimed she had slept with Trump (which Trump denied). A lawyer for the company denied that Vekselberg had anything to do with the payments. Vekselberg, however, was interrogated as part of Robert Mueller’s Russian interference investigation. He claimed he had nothing to hide, and he was not mentioned in the eventual report, but the oligarch – who has a house in Connecticut, substantial US assets, American children – found himself on the US sanctions list. He has said that this is unfair, and has instructed lawyers to challenge his inclusion.
Vekselberg desperately, desperately loves Fabergé eggs. He once went head-to-head in the courts of the British Virgin Islands with the boss of the world’s largest mining company, Brian Gilbertson of BHP, over the rights to the brand (he lost). In the 1990s, following the explosion of the Russian art market, his quest was to hunt down as many as he could find of the 52 Easter eggs that Carl Fabergé crafted for the Tsars and their families between 1885 and 1917, and return them to the fatherland. Carl Fabergé presented annual Easter eggs to the Russian royal family almost up until their execution.
Following the Revolution, the eggs were confiscated by the Bolsheviks, and they lay forgotten until they were discovered under Stalin, with many being sold overseas to raise funds for Russian industry. With Ruzhnikov and another Fabergé expert, Vladimir Voronchenko, Vekselberg started a foundation, called ‘The Link of Times’ (the awkward name makes sense in Russian, Ruzhnikov assured me), to track down and purchase the eggs. Their coup came in 2004, when Ruzhnikov masterminded the purchase of nine Imperial Eggs from the Forbes family for an undisclosed sum, likely to be around $100 million.
Vekselberg’s eggs are now on display a few hundred metres down Nevski Prospekt from the Hermitage in the Fabergé Museum. The museum was founded by Vekselberg for the purpose of displaying the eggs gathered with Ruzhnikov’s help, but Ruzhnikov has never actually visited the Fabergé Museum. Several years ago, he was forced to sell a number of his own Fabergé items to the oligarch to finance his divorce. It would be simply too painful, Ruzhnikov told me, to see them locked behind glass in Vekselberg’s institution. Vekselberg, thanks to Ruzhnikov, now sits atop the largest egg collection in the world. His Fabergé nest is finer even than the Kremlin’s own. But Vekselberg, whose collection is unmatched, has many would-be-rival egg men. Ivanov is one of them.
Having made his money importing computers into the Soviet Union, Ivanov now paints and sells expensive abstract canvases (apparently he mixes precious gems into the paint). Like Vekselberg, he also owns a Fabergé museum, one that is called: the Fabergé Museum. It lies on the edge of the Black Forest, in the spa town of Baden-Baden. Ivanov founded the institution with a Kremlin-connected figure called Konstantin Golashapov, who is a businessman in Putin’s inner circle who, it is said, was Putin’s personal masseur in the judo gym where the future president grappled with soon to be plunderers of Soviet industry (‘I guess after you wrestle for an hour your body requires some recuperation,’ Ruzhnikov told me). It is the good ‘law-abiding Germans’ of Baden-Baden who are being fleeced now, Ruzhnikov says, by the museum’s €23 entry fee, which is higher than the Louvre’s. Many of the items recently exhibited at the Hermitage, Ruzhnikov claims, are forgeries from Ivanov’s museum. Ruzhnikov accuses the Hermitage and Ivanov of running, in essence, a laundry for fake Fabergé.
After his divorce, Ruzhnikov left California for an enormous Mayfair flat filled with icons and security cameras. I stepped through his front door onto a sumptuous foyer rug embroidered with the steely face of a nubile Vladimir Putin. I was led to his office, where we watched Spain beat Croatia in the Euros and emptied a bottle of rosé. He excused himself to take a call from his masseur, and then began to let loose against his enemies, who include powerful individuals in the Russian art market in London, and a member of the advisory board of Vekselberg’s museum. Most of his venom, though, was for Ivanov. ‘The Baden-Baden museum is going to disappear soon, I hope,’ he said. ‘I will just help it to disappear soon.’
The first Imperial Egg, known as the Hen Egg, was made in 1885 for Tsarina Maria Federovna, the mother of Nicholas II: it now belongs to Vekselberg. The egg is two and a half inches tall, its shell is solid gold, with a coat of polished white enamel. Unlike all the other jewel-encrusted Imperial Eggs, it actually resembles an ordinary egg. The two halves can be separated with a twist, like removing a light bulb. Inside is a rich golden yolk. Crack open the yolk and you meet a golden hen with ruby eyes. Once, a miniscule replica of the Imperial crown lay inside of the hen, but that is now lost.
Ivanov has a ‘Hen Egg’ of his own. It was exhibited at the Hermitage as Fabergé, but it has a conspicuous gold band around the shell that is absent on Vekselberg’s version. Ruzhnikov claims Ivanov’s is a modern fake. Also exhibited at the Hermitage was Ivanov’s ‘Wedding Anniversary Egg’, alleged to be from 1904. In 2020, DeAnn Hoff, an independent Fabergé researcher in Bend, Oregon, questioned its authenticity in the Fabergé Research Letter: the photographs that provided the basis for the images of the Romanovs on the egg were taken after 1904, and besides, no egg was produced in 1904 due to the war with Japan, Hoff claimed.
To Ruzhnikov, it is clearly a cheap knock off. ‘It is inconceivable,’ an anonymous London-based Fabergé dealer told Artnet about an item Ivanov loaned to the Hermitage, ‘that Russian Empresses, with the unmatched Russian crown jewels at their disposal, would demean themselves with composite low-quality tiaras of this type.’ Ivanov responded with documents he claimed proved the authenticity of the alleged fakes. His defence was ridiculed on Ruzhnikov’s blog, with Ruzhnikov disputing the authenticity of Ivanov’s documents. ‘If Mr Ivanov wants his sheets of paper to be discussed seriously, he needs to say exactly where he found them,’ he wrote. ‘If the answer is “grandma’s attic” we’re going nowhere.’
‘This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to give back to my country one of its most revered treasures,’ said Vekselberg, following his purchase of the Forbes collection. Piotrovsky, the Russian press reported, had expected Vekselberg to donate the eggs to the Hermitage – a public museum – and was upset when he placed them in his private institution in a palace down the road. Ivanov, however, is in much better favour at the Hermitage. In 2005, he bought the most expensive Fabergé item ever sold at auction – a jewelled clock in the shape of an egg from which a diamond-set cockerel springs forth upon the hour, crowing and flapping its wings.
He had it shipped from London to Baden-Baden, where 40 UK customs agents turned up in a raid – an issue with unpaid sales tax, apparently. The museum claimed no crime had been committed and that the raid was politically motivated. In any case, it was too late: the egg had already been shipped off to the Kremlin. Soon after, Putin personally handed it over to the Hermitage, presenting it to Piotrovsky in a ceremony marking the museum’s 250th anniversary.
Ruzhnikov’s relentless attacks on the Russian museum establishment have caused friends to worry about his safety. Some, he told me, have become hysterical with fear. He thinks the danger is overstated – he makes novichok jokes – but his friends may have reason to be concerned.
I asked many Fabergé experts to comment on his allegations and heard back from only one (and he agreed with Ruzhnikov). The world that Ruzhnikov inhabits, of gorgeous imperial porcelain and cloisonné enamels and thrilling, adorned icons of the Theotokos – the Mother of God – has been poisoned by oligarchic jockeying.
Why put himself in the front line? His only wish, he insists, is to protect the integrity of the market.A teenager tempted west, he told me, by Wrangler and Chrysler, Ruzhnikov is sentimental about markets in the manner of a good Cold War exile, and in any case, the art market is a dealer’s hunting ground – he should like it nice and healthy. There are rumours in the Russian media, though, that he is working with Vekselberg to settle scores with rivals. Ruzhnikov denies it. He hardly even speaks to Vekselberg any more, he says. Plus, this is not a charge Ivanov makes, preferring instead to accuse Ruzhnikov of having stolen Vekselberg’s money. ‘Total bullshit!’, said Ruzhnikov. He sent me a copy of a letter from the Link of Times Foundation stating that they continue to remain on good terms.
Recently, Vekselberg has been battling in courts across the world to protect his assets from the sanctions. He likely has weightier things on the mind. Still, his eggs keep popping up. Last year, the Intercept reported that, a few months after the sanctions were imposed, a Panamanian company controlled by Vekselberg, Lamesa Arts, received a $50-million shipment marked ‘Fabergé’ from an organisation connected to the Russian Culture Ministry. Is Vekselberg considering selling some of his collection to help compensate for sanctions losses? There is no evidence of this, beyond the mystery of a valuable shipment making its way from Russia to an offshore Vekselberg company. I asked Ruzhnikov what could be going on, and he couldn’t believe Vekselberg would ship $50-million worth of Fabergé to Central America. It made no sense, it must be ‘complete hogwash!’. Vekselberg’s spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
Starting from 21 November 2021, Vekselberg’s Hen Egg, along with the clock purchased by Ivanov and sent off to Putin, will go on display as part of the V&A Museum’s exhibition ‘Fabergé in London’. It is expected to be the largest display of Imperial Eggs in one place in a generation, said Kieran McCarthy, of the London jewellers Wartski, who is a curator of the exhibition. McCarthy knows Ruzhnikov well, and respects his opinion about many things, ‘but not’, he said, ‘about everything’. He refused to talk about the allegations against Ivanov, and instead spoke highly of the Hermitage, and of Russian museums in general.
The V&A has borrowed Fabergé items from the Hermitage, the Kremlin Museum, Vekselberg’s Fabergé Museum and the UK Royal Collection, as well as Ruzhnikov’s own collection. There will, McCarthy said, be nothing from Ivanov. In an apparent retort, the Baden-Baden museum recently published an article on its website alleging that an item due to be exhibited at the V&A is of questionable authenticity. The V&A, in response, told me that all the items in the exhibition comply with their due diligence procedures, and that they are grateful to their lenders.
Neither Ivanov’s museum, the Hermitage, nor Vekselberg responded to my requests for comment. Piotrovsky, however, has both defended the Hermitage exhibition and promised an inquiry into the authenticity of the exhibits.
‘Who will do the authenticating? Your own lab?’ wrote Ruzhnikov. ‘That’s like placing a fox in a chicken coop to protect chickens and roosters from martens and wolverines!’ And yet, for the director of the Hermitage, authenticity may not be a pressing concern. ‘As a museum,’ Ruzhnikov claimed Piotrovsky said in a TV interview, ‘authenticity is not important to us. It’s history that is important to us’. For Ruzhnikov, though, this is just the beginning. The prospect of taking down Ivanov excites him. He is even in touch with Ivanov’s ex-wife, he tells me. They chat on the phone about the object of their mutual hatred. He has a big stack of blog posts on the way.
Earlier this year, Ruzhnikov received an email from a stonecutter in the Ural Mountains. The stonecutter said that he had once worked for a workshop in St Petersburg which had, he said, received an order for small elephants carved from jasper identical to a supposedly Fabergé elephant recently displayed in the Hermitage. Ruzhnikov suspects the order for forgeries came straight from Ivanov. I asked him why this stonecutter would get in touch with him, out of the blue, coming clean as a forger. ‘Interesting question,’ said Ruzhnikov. ‘He’s just a nice Russian guy who moved back to the Urals. He doesn’t have any money. He needs money. And so I hired him.’
I asked him what he meant. After the stonecutter got in touch, Ruzhnikov immediately realised that the revelation would make a perfect post, but only with photographic evidence demonstrating the stonecutter’s skills at faking Fabergé. Ruzhnikov asked the stonecutter if he could carve identical jasper elephants, but the stonecutter complained that he didn’t have the money for the equipment. The artisan in the Urals is currently on Ruzhnikov’s payroll, working on an order for forgeries from the Mayfair dealer. ‘I’m paying him a couple of thousand dollars,’ said Ruzhnikov. ‘He’s for real for sure.’