Lost Masterpieces

Where Are The Romanovs’ Missing Fabergé Easter Eggs?

The Russian royal family had their intricate, bejeweled Easter eggs crafted by Fabergé. Then they were killed, and the glittering treasures scattered.

Photo Illustration by Kelly Caminero/The Daily Beast

It was the Easter present to trump all Easter presents. In the tradition of the Russian Orthodox Church, Czar Alexander III commissioned a delicate, intricately decorated egg as a gift for his wife to celebrate the holy day in 1885.

But this was no ordinary decorated egg. This was the very first Fabergé egg, an exquisite and innovative creation designed by the goldsmith and jeweler Peter Carl Fabergé.

When Czarina Maria Feodorovna opened the plain white enameled egg on that early Easter day, she was met with a series of delightful surprises.

First, she found a round yolk made entirely of gold. That opened to reveal a beautiful gold hen with ruby red eyes. The midsection of the hen swung up, and inside was a small, diamond-encrusted replica of a royal crown and a tiny, delicate ruby egg.

The Czar and Czarina were so pleased with Fabergé’s creation, that the royal family turned the gift into an annual tradition that was eventually carried on by Alexander III’s son and heir Nicholas II.

Each year, the gifted eggs became more intricate and more ingenious. But what the royal Romanovs didn’t know on that Easter day was that only 32 years—and 49 more eggs—later, the world they knew and ruled would come violently crashing down, taking the royal family and seven of the rare Fabergé creations with it.

The saga really began in 1842, when a Russian goldsmith Gustav Fabergé decided to open his own business. He named the jewelry company after himself, but gave it a little extra swagger with the addition of an accent.

Under the leadership of Gustav’s son, Peter Carl, the House of Fabergé reached the height of its renown. Carl, as he was known, followed in his father’s footsteps, apprenticing as a goldsmith and traveling throughout Europe soaking up inspiration from the celebrated art collections of the Italians and French.

The younger Fabergé had a grand vision for the family jewelry company. Under his watch, the House of Fabergé became a couture operation, creating priceless pieces of jewelry, objets d’art, and other fine goods for all the top Russian families of the day.

At the company’s height, Fabergé employed over 500 skilled artisans to help realize his visions, and he was named the official goldsmith of the Russian Imperial Court.

In a 1949 edition of The New York Times, writer William Germain Dooley describes the jeweler best, writing that he was a “fabricator of jeweled fantasies.” The piece goes on to describe the magical pieces that emerged from those fantasies. “As if from a fairy-tale toyland, these objects elaborated themselves into golden peacocks that would strut, eggs that shed shell after shell to disclose royal coaches and crowns in jeweled miniatures, rose-quartz Buddhas that had ruby tongues and swaying heads of chalcedony.”

While the Fabergé eggs make up only a small portion of the work produced by the atelier, they represent the pinnacle of the jeweler-cum-artist’s crafty and opulent creations. Following the inaugural Hen Egg, Fabergé was given full artistic control over the annual gifts, with his only marching orders being that each must contain an element of surprise.

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And, boy, did he deliver. There were the eggs that contained stunning—and functional—miniature toys inside, like the five-car, gold and platinum, wind-up train found in the Trans-Siberian Railway Egg and the crystal Peacock Egg that opened to reveal a tree made of gold containing a peacock that could strut around and shake its feathers.

There was the Lilies of the Valley Egg, a gorgeous, pink and green bejeweled oval perched on four gold legs. When a disguised pearl button was pushed, a trio of portraits of Nicholas II and his two oldest daughters—Olga and Tatiana—popped out of the top.

There were eggs that contained replicas of the royal family’s beloved yacht and favorite summer palace. And then there was the most expensive creation, the Winter Egg, clocking in at a total of over $2 million in today’s value.

Made from carved rock crystal, the egg is decorated with platinum and diamonds to resemble a winter wonderland and sits on a crystal block meant to resemble a melting piece of ice. The frosty egg opens to reveal a gem-encrusted bouquet of flowers, a hint of bejeweled spring.

The eggs, which took at least a year but often longer to create, continued to get more creative in their surprises, more stunning in their presentation.

But, then, on March 8, 1917, everything changed.

The Russian people had had enough of the profligate royals and Czar Nicholas II’s increasingly ineffective and remote leadership. There was also the deadly toll the Russian Army—and by extension the home country—suffered during WWI.

On that late winter day, country-wide protests erupted and toppled the government. Nicholas II agreed to abdicate his throne a few days later, and his family was removed from their luxurious estate and transferred to a remote city in the center of the country, where they lived under house arrest in austere conditions.

A few months later, in the following November, the even more extremist Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, grabbed power from the provisional government. The end of the Romanovs was near.

On July 16, 1918, the Bolsheviks decided it was time to deal with the former royals once and for all. They took Nicholas, his wife Alexandra, and their five children, plus several of their servants, into the basement and executed them all.

Fabergé, for his part, was a marked man given his association with the country’s elite. His pride and joy, the House of Fabergé, was seized and nationalized. (After years of legal wrangling, the family won back rights to the name in 2007, and, as of 2009, they have started creating jewelry collections once again.) The jeweler and his family fled to Switzerland where he died several years later of, according to one scholar, “a broken heart.”

After the fall of the Romanov dynasty, the royal art collections were plundered. The stunning Easter eggs, save one ferried away by the fleeing Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, were packed up and taken to Moscow, stashed away in a dark corner of the Kremlin Armory.

It took the rise of Stalin to bring them back into the light of day—but this time for more commercial purposes. Stalin decided to sell off Russia’s cultural treasures in an effort to fund his government’s operations.

At first, both the new Russian establishment and global art aficionados didn’t quite understand how truly valuable these delightful eggs were. While the name “Fabergé eggs” may inspire universal awe today, at the time of the Russian revolution, they were almost entirely unknown.

“[Fabergé] shrouded their production in secrecy, even refusing to reveal to his royal patrons, Aleksandr III [sic] and Nicholas II, which tiny surprises he was concealing inside the eggs,” Rita Reif wrote in The New York Times in 1997. “The Imperial clients were secretive, too. They never told the Russian people about the eggs and kept them in their private apartments, out of sight of palace visitors.”

While it may have taken several years for the art world to truly understand their value, the Fabergé eggs were eventually snapped up, ultimately raking in millions at auction, and scattering far and wide. Some early purchases ended up in the U.S. in the possession of such prominent collectors as Marjorie Merriweather Post and Malcolm S. Forbes. A group now lives in the British royal family’s collection, and others have made their way to various other prominent public and private collections around the globe.

But in the midst of this movement, eight eggs vanished seemingly without a trace. Several have never been seen since their original entombment in the Kremlin, inciting nightmares of possible destruction. Others are believed to have been sold early on, but their whereabouts have long been unknown.

Only one in this missing group has turned up, and its discovery was a surprise worthy of the treasures hidden the Fabergé eggs themselves.

Several years ago, an anonymous Midwestern scrap metal dealer found what he thought was a high-quality decorative trinket at a market. He purchased it for $14,000, estimating he could sell it for a $500 profit to someone who would melt it down for parts. But when he shopped it around, his potential buyers told him he had overestimated the value of the materials.

In 2014, desperate to get the expensive purchase off his hands, the man decided to google a random name etched on the back of a tiny clock found inside the egg—“Vacheron Constantin.” The result was a shock. He had accidentally purchased what is known as the Third Imperial Easter egg, a priceless work of art that experts had been eagerly searching for—one that was valued at around $33 million. Needless to say, he decided to keep it.

With this incredible find, only seven Fabergé eggs remain out there, somewhere. Some may no longer be able to be found, lost in the destructive tides of war and revolution.

But, who knows. Maybe a few of the eggs are still around, hidden and waiting for another lucky soul hunting for an Easter treasure to come across an egg somewhere. It will be intricately crafted, made of premier metals and gems. And there will be a hinge or a hidden button or some sort of device that when pushed just the right way will pop open and… surprise!