An important Imperial jewelled silver-gilt and enamel cigarette caseFabergé, workmaster August Holmström, c. 1897, scratched inventory number 56102

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Lot 137*
An important Imperial jewelled silver-gilt and enamel cigarette case
Fabergé, workmaster August Holmström, c. 1897, scratched inventory number 56102

Sold for £ 205,250 (US$ 251,927) inc. premium
An important Imperial jewelled silver-gilt and enamel cigarette case
Fabergé, workmaster August Holmström, c. 1897, scratched inventory number 56102
of rectangular shape with rounded corners, with finely chased leaf vines in silver-gilt covering the entire surface and encircling a magnificent heraldic double-headed eagle, the reverse with similar vines forming a four-pointed arabesque centred with four-petal flower, all against guilloché enamel in delicate hue of lavender, with rose diamond thumb piece; interior of the lid inscribed 'from your loving Alix' and further in Cyrillic 'Peterhof/ 29 May 1897', 88 standard
9.4 x 6.5cm (3 5/8 x 2 1/2in.)


    Purchased by Empress Alexandra Fedorovna, 28 April 1897
    Presented by Empress Alexandra to Nicholas II, 29 May 1897, on the occasion of the birth of their second daughter Grand Duchess Tatiana (29 May 1897 - 17 July 1918)
    Collection of Emperor Nicholas II, St. Petersburg
    Moved to the safe storage of the Kremlin Treasury in late 1917 for safekeeping
    Nationalized as part of Imperial treasures after October 1917 and probably de-accessioned in late 1920s
    Acquired by an American businessman in Moscow, at the Torgsin store on 18 August 1931 for 103 roubles (copy of the original invoice is offered with the lot)

    This historic cigarette case, recently discovered in the collection of an American family, can easily be considered as one of the most important artistic discoveries of the Russian art season.

    Made by the legendary Fabergé firm this stunningly beautiful cigarette case features delicate gilded vines intricately arranged into arabesque cage work showcasing lavender guilloché enamel. The elaborate design and flawless craftsmanship alone suggest Imperial ownership, but the dominating presence of the large Romanov double-headed eagle leaves no doubt that the cigarette case has a Russian Imperial provenance. Furthermore, the inscription on the lid confirms that its significance goes beyond its stunning beauty.

    In a perfect facsimile reproduction of the last Russian Empress's handwriting, the inscription reads, 'from your loving Alix. Peterhof 29 May 1897'. The cigarette case was a gift from the Empress Alexandra Fedorovna to her husband Emperor Nicholas II on the day that their second daughter, Tatiana, was born at Lower Palace at Peterhof, a family summer retreat. Alexandra's pregnancy was difficult; period documents recorded that Empress Alexandra had spent seven weeks bedridden due to concerns about her delicate condition and the danger of miscarriage. The Imperial couple was under considerable pressure to produce an heir to the Russian throne; without a male heir, the future of the Empire and the order of succession would have been uncertain. Only two years earlier, the joy of first pregnancy was tinged with sadness that the first-born child was a girl. Named Olga, she was enthusiastically welcomed by the Imperial parents, but met with almost palpable disappointment by the Court.

    Given the enormous pressure of this second pregnancy, one might argue that the Empress deliberately commissioned the dynastic Romanov double-headed eagle as the main decorative element on the cigarette case in the hope that the second pregnancy would yield a male heir. Her hopes did not materialize until 1904 when Tsarevich Aleksei, the fifth child of Nicholas and Alexandra, was born.

    The offered lot was a personal gift from the young Empress, born Alice Victoria Helen Brigitte Louise Beatrice, the daughter of Grand Duke Ludwig IV of Hesse-Darmstadt, who only three years earlier moved from a small German principality to the cosmopolitan St. Petersburg to marry her beloved Nicholas, heir to the Russian throne. The premature death of her father-in-law Emperor Alexander III made them an Imperial couple before the young Nicholas and Alexandra were even fully acquainted with each other. The ascent to prominence was not an easy transition for the naturally reserved and shy Alexandra, simply known as 'Alix' to her immediate family.

    Alexandra struggled with the duality of both roles: a public figure symbolizing Imperial grandeur and a private figure with a personal relationship with her family. The cigarette case reflects this duality; a grand, stately dynastic eagle set against lilac enamel, a favorite colour of the Empress. The personal quarters at the Alexander Place at Tsarskoe Selo were furnished and decorated in a lavender and lilac palette, reflecting Alexandra's preference for a delicate hue of this unusual colour.

    The State Russian Historical Archives preserved a bill submitted by the Fabergé firm on 3 June 1897 to Empress Alexandra's office that included all purchases made by the Empress from the beginning of that year. Listed on 28th April under the firm's inventory number 56102 is 'a cigarette case of lilac enamel with eagle and diamond' purchased for 350 rubles.

    The case became part of a collection of more than two hundred cigarette cases accumulated by Nicholas II, a serious smoker, who frequently received cigarette cases for birthdays and holidays. When the First World War broke out, the State Imperial regalia and many cherished personal possessions of the Imperial family were transported to the Armory in the Kremlin for safekeeping. This was the last time Nicholas II saw the cigarette case.

    Between 1917 and 1931, the whereabouts of the cigarette case are unclear. The case was likely kept at the Kremlin art storage until a new government resolution instructed curators to evaluate stored collections and to allocate objects 'without museum and cultural significance.' Those 'newly-found' treasures were used to finance the First Five-Year Industrialization Plan. Items made of gold and silver, especially those associated with the Imperial family and their immediate aristocratic circle, were de-accessioned and initially sold at European auctions. Then in 1931, they were sold through Torgsin shops frequented by affluent European and American diplomats, businessmen and tourists. At that time, foreign visitors were allowed to bring foreign currency to Soviet Russia, but were forbidden to take it out. They were encouraged to shop these treasure troves for Russian and European antiques and for personal mementos of the Russian Imperial family. That is exactly how the present cigarette case ended up in the family of the current owner.

    The original receipt issued by Torgsin store located on Armianskii pereulok 2 listed the cigarette case as a 'gift from the last Tsarina to Tsar Nicholas II.' According to a written note preserved in the family, it was sold for 103 rubles. The American businessman discovered Torgsin's store on his second business trip to Russia where he purchased the Imperial cigarette case, a pair of porcelain vases, Yusupov silver (also offered in this auction, lots 178 and 197), Imperial porcelain plates and a marble clock. Later, he left his family a vivid description of his experiences at the Torgsin shop:

    At the 'Torgsin' shop, exclusively for trade with foreigners. What an attractive shop, such gorgeous things. At the jewelry counter I fingered a string of pearls, then I noticed many intimate trinkets and I asked, 'Where did you buy all these things?' 'Well', the Russian stuttered, 'you see they became nationalized'. An American engineer enlightened us. 'This is what the Soviets stole from everyone, for if you had a house worth more than $1500.00 all you had was taken and this is the government fence – stolen goods. They have 40 of these shops stretching from Manchuria to the Baltic'.

    Regardless of how this cigarette case was viewed by Soviet cultural authorities in 1931, at least its commercial importance was not entirely lost on the Soviet officials who even then could appreciate its appeal to the American and European collectors.

    Lovingly preserved by three generations of an American family, the cigarette case survived many odds to tell the story of a romantic but doomed love, the Russian revolution and the displacement of Russian cultural patrimony. As an embodiment of all these complex and intertwined personal and historical narratives, this lot stands as a particularly fascinating object. The exceptional quality and unparalleled elegance of the cigarette case exemplify the enduring qualities associated with the famous Fabergé Firm and the legendary opulence and luxury of the Russian Imperial court.
An important Imperial jewelled silver-gilt and enamel cigarette caseFabergé, workmaster August Holmström, c. 1897, scratched inventory number 56102
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