Russia’s Imperial Fabergé Easter eggs really are the stuff of legend. These Exquisitely crafted items covered in precious metals and gems were commissioned by the Tsars of the Romanov dynasty. And they served as treasured gifts in a family where luxury was commonplace. But the tradition ended when a bloody revolution cut short the Imperial line. Later, the ornaments were sold off to raise money for the struggling regime – though not all of them are accounted for!
The Romanovs were one of the richest families on Earth when Tsar Alexander III of Russia ordered the first of the elaborate creations for his wife Maria in 1885. Few things encapsulated their wealth and privilege more than the fabulous eggs crafted by Peter Carl Fabergé. Yet when the fate of the Imperial family took a downturn, the ornaments were scattered around the world.
Today, the Imperial Fabergé eggs are synonymous with decadence and luxury – the prized possessions of a family whose opulence would ultimately lead them to a tragic end. Now held in a variety of museums and private collections, these historic treasures rarely make it to auction. Though when they do, oh boy! Apparently, multi-million dollar sums can be expected to change hands.
History.com notes that 50 of the extravagant eggs were created for the Imperial family. But have they all been thoroughly documented and traced? Well, not exactly! A number of the ornaments apparently remain missing – known only by brief descriptions and the occasional photograph. So, where are they? And will they ever be brought into the limelight once more?
The story of the Fabergé Eggs began back in 1885 during the fifth year of Alexander and Maria’s reign. Having been a princess in Denmark before their marriage, the Tsarina was beloved by her people – praised for her beauty and good-natured spirit. When it came time for her husband to select an Easter gift, then, the pressure must have been on!
Keen to please his wife, Alexander enlisted the services of Fabergé – a jeweler who had inherited his father’s business some three years previously. As it turned out, this was a wise move. What the artisan eventually created would spark a trend the likes of which have never been seen again.
On the surface, perhaps, Fabergé’s creation did not look like much. The egg – encased in white enamel – measured just 2.5 inches in length, according to History.com. But the ornament’s real beauty was revealed when it was twisted open and displayed a yoke crafted from brilliant gold. That wasn’t the only treasure hiding within, either.
Yep, it wasn’t just the yoke which would amaze – there was another golden secret concealed inside the enamel egg! A small model of a hen opened to reveal a second surprise: a tiny crown encrusted with diamonds. And this jewel, in turn, unlatched to expose a miniscule pendant crafted from precious ruby. Unsurprisingly, the elaborate confection was a hit.
In fact, Maria was so pleased with her gift that Alexander decided to place a standing order! Every year for the rest of the Tsar’s reign, Fabergé delivered his unique eggs to the Russian court. According to History.com, the jeweler was initially given instructions to follow, but eventually he was allowed creative free reign.
“[Fabergé] was basically given carte blanche to use his creativity and the craftsmanship of his workshops to produce really the very best that could be imagined as an Easter present,” Fabergé expert Dr. Géza von Habsburg told History.com in 2019. And when Alexander died in 1894 his son and successor Nicholas II continued the tradition.
Beginning in the first year of his reign, Nicholas ordered two Fabergé eggs every Easter: one for wife Alexandra and another for his widowed mother. But in contrast to the sheer indulgence of the Imperial ornaments, life for everyday Russians was growing increasingly tough. And even though few outside the palace knew of the outlandish gifts, the Romanovs’ lavish lifestyle was clearly at odds with the nationwide poverty and strife.
Ten years into Nicholas’ reign, Russia went to war with Japan, and the Tsar canceled his annual order for Fabergé’s opulent eggs. Though this uncharacteristic humility was apparently short-lived. When the conflict was over he resumed the tradition – placing a new order for the ornaments every year from 1906 until 1917.
All in all, a total of 50 Imperial Fabergé eggs were constructed for the Russians Tsars and their families. According to reports, each design was different, and the only common theme was that they all contained a miniature surprise. Photographs reveal that some were relatively plain on the outside – concealing an intricate secret within – while others boasted glittering exteriors studded with precious gems.
Eventually, though, this unique tradition – like the reign of the Romanovs – would come to an abrupt end. Ever since the assassination of Alexander’s father by revolutionaries in 1881, the Imperial powers had been using oppression to subdue the Russian people. But by the time that Nicholas II came to the throne, resistance to the Romanov’s harsh regime had reached a boiling point.
With his people in open rebellion, Nicholas was compelled to make concessions – gradually weakening his grip on the country. But as the Tsar’s power waned, another man called Vladimir Lenin rose up to fill the void. And as the head of the Bolsheviks, he presented a future very different to the divided Russia of poverty and extreme privilege presided over by the Romanovs.
By 1917 the rumblings of unrest had grown into a barely concealed roar. Though even as his people turned against him, Nicholas continued to flaunt his impossible wealth. According to History.com, he ordered two more Fabergé eggs to give as Easter gifts. Yet history would take a very different turn before they could be passed on to their intended recipients.
With many men away fighting in World War I, the impact of the conflict was being felt across Russia. And alongside food shortages and spiraling costs, a severe winter dealt another blow to the country’s morale. By the end of February there were riots on the streets, and pressure had begun mounting on Nicholas to resign his crown.
Eventually, on March 15, 1917, Nicholas abdicated from the Russian throne. No longer a Tsar, he was initially kept under house arrest – moved between locations along with his wife and five children. But on the night of July 16, an order came to kill the captives, and all seven Romanovs were murdered by Bolshevik troops.
Rumors persist that at least one member of the family survived, though it is generally accepted that the Romanovs all perished that fateful day. So, what of the great riches they left behind – such as their dazzling collection of Fabergé eggs? Historical records show that they were actually shipped to Moscow, where they were locked away in the Kremlin.
But, of course, the revolution wasn’t the answer to all of Russia’s woes, and by the 1920s the new regime was in dire financial straits. As part of an initiative dubbed “treasures into tractors,” the government began selling off the nation’s cultural heritage in order to raise much-needed funds. And that meant that the Imperial Fabergé eggs soon went under the hammer.
Where did they all end up, then? The short answer is that they’re in lots of places! Today, 43 of the 50 eggs are known to be held in museums and private collections, where they are considered to be among the most desirable objects ever created. And while 19 are currently located in Russia, the rest of the ornaments are scattered around the world.
In London, England, the Royal Collection houses three of Fabergé’s Imperial creations – including the Mosaic egg. This dazzling piece is encrusted with countless rubies, garnets, sapphires, emeralds and rose diamonds. It also still contains its surprise: a miniature portrait of Nicholas and Alexandra’s five children. According to experts, it is one of the most technically accomplished out of all the great jeweler’s designs.
Elsewhere, the Fabergé Museum in St. Petersburg boasts a total of nine pieces – including the First Hen egg that started it all. Hundreds of miles away in Moscow, another ten are kept in the Kremlin Armory. Over in the United States, meanwhile, 13 of the ornaments are held in various collections across the country.
Each piece – unique in its design – tells a story about the Romanovs and their time on Russia’s throne. The golden Imperial Coronation egg, for example, contains a tiny replica of the coach that brought Alexandra to the palace on the day that Nicholas was made Tsar. And the diamond-encrusted Rosebud egg – allegedly damaged during a lover’s quarrel – was the first Easter gift that she received from her new husband.
We now know that 43 Imperial Fabergé eggs are accounted for. But what happened to the other seven? Sadly, it’s possible that at least some of them were lost when the Romanovs fell from power. According to the Daily Mail, two of the ornaments survived past 1917, though the others may never have made it through the revolution.
Imperial Fabergé eggs change hands for millions of dollars, so these missing ornaments have become many a treasure hunter’s Holy Grail. Over the years, experts and amateurs alike have spent many hours combing antique markets and garage sales in the hopes of tracking down one of the lost pieces. But with little to go on, it has been a challenging task.
Take the missing Cherub with Chariot egg, for example. Until 2007 not much was known about this creation, which was apparently presented to Alexander in 1888. But then, economist Vincent Palmade stumbled upon some photographs taken in 1902 at the first Fabergé exhibition in Russia.
Palmade has fostered an obsession with Fabergé since childhood. And in the exhibition photographs, he spotted a display case which had been rumored to contain the legendary missing ornaments. By tracking down a high-resolution copy of the snap, he was able to spot an image of the Cherub with Chariot egg reflected in the glass. For the first time in decades, the treasure hunters finally knew exactly what they were looking for!
It’s worth noting that this image hasn’t helped anyone to track down the Cherub with Chariot egg yet. But as Alice Ilich – who once worked for the auction houses Sotheby’s and Christie’s – explained to The Telegraph in 2015, “The research really is the most important thing.” She added, “Then people know what they are looking for, so if they do happen to come across it they know what it is.”
So, what happened to the Cherub with Chariot egg? According to reports, some believe that it was brought to the United States. Certainly, there is a 1934 catalogue from the Lord and Taylor department store that lists an “Easter egg, made by Fabergé.” And the brief description does appear to match the missing treasure. Yet after that, the trail goes cold.
A similar story, it seems, played out with the Necessaire – the second missing egg to have been documented after the revolution. According to the Daily Mail, this lost ornament was known only by a blurry photograph and a rough description until 2017. But then, an amateur sleuth made a remarkable discovery.
Commissioned by Alexander in 1889, this lost egg essentially functioned as an insanely elaborate toilet set – with the surprise consisting of 13 diamond-encrusted grooming tools. Meanwhile, the outside was set with multiple precious stones such as rubies, sapphires and emeralds. Yet despite the obvious value of such an intricate piece, it eventually disappeared.
Unlike the Cherub with Chariot egg, though, the Necessaire can be definitively traced back to 1952. The Daily Mail notes that it was acquired by the British antique dealers Wartski – but they had no idea that the ornament was one of Fabergé’s Imperial treasures. And as such, they sold it at auction for just £1,250 – the equivalent of around $50,000 today.
“In 1952 there was no means of knowing it was an Imperial egg,” Wartski’s Kieran McCarthy told the Daily Mail in 2017. “It was the Cold War and there was no information coming from behind the Iron Curtain. It was not until Glasnost that the Russians started to release information about these treasures. Now we know we had the Necessaire egg…”
By that time, though, it was too late! According to reports, Wartski’s ledger from 1952 lists the purchaser of the Necessaire egg simply as “Stranger.” Speculating on its ultimate fate, McCarthy said, “We don’t know where it went, and all the people who were here at the time are no longer alive. But in 1952 the vast majority of our customers were British – so it is highly likely the egg is still in a British home.”
So could the Necessaire be sitting on a mantelpiece somewhere – its true value unknown to its oblivious owner? Thanks to the work of Kellie Bond from Gloucester, England, the chances of the treasure being recovered have now improved. One day, while Googling the Russian Revolution, she found a photograph from a pre-war exhibition. And in it, she spotted the missing egg.
Even with a decent photograph to refer to, though, would-be detectives have yet to track down the Necessaire. But if history is anything to go by, they shouldn’t give up hope just yet. After all, up until recently, there was another missing egg – known as the Third Imperial. But then, a chance find at an American antiques market changed history.
At some point in the 2000s an unnamed dealer stumbled upon a gold, sapphire and diamond egg for sale at $14,000, according to CNN. He then purchased the unusual ornament believing that he could sell it on to a buyer who would melt it down for scrap. Ironically, everyone who he approached believed he had paid too much for the find!
Eventually, in desperation, the dealer typed some details into Google and came across a 2011 article from The Telegraph newspaper. There, underneath a headline reading, “Is this £20 million nest-egg on your mantelpiece?” was a picture of his ornament. Thankfully, it had not been melted down. And a trip to see McCarthy in London confirmed that the American was indeed in possession of the missing Third Imperial Easter Egg!
“He handed me a portfolio of photographs, and there was the egg – the Holy Grail of art and antiques,” McCarthy told CNN in 2015. Eventually, the extraordinary find was sold to a private collector, and it left the lucky dealer with a tidy profit. Though chances are, there are at least two similar discoveries out there somewhere. How much fortune do you think they could bring to their owners?