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Treasures and Trivia of the Romanov Era

Date: 05/06/2014 17:45

JORDANVILLE, N.Y. — Artifacts as ordinary as coat hangers that were owned by czars and members of their inner circle, are re-emerging at museums, stores and auction houses. The greatest concentration will appear next month in a new museum at a Russian Orthodox monastery in this hamlet near Utica.

On the grounds of Holy Trinity Monastery and Seminary here, the Foundation of Russian History’s inaugural exhibition, opening on May 25, surveys four centuries of Romanov rule and post-imperial life. The Rev. Vladimir von Tsurikov, the foundation’s director and curator, gave a preview of the show, “The Russian Word and Image: Four Centuries of Books and Art,” pulling out drawer after drawer of chilling material.

The foundation has acquired records from Russian nobles exiled in America, the last czar’s cutlery, wooden coat hangers bearing the last czarina’s monogram, and weapons used in hopeless battles against Bolsheviks. Bullets are still tucked into army uniform pockets. Prayer books, dating to the 16th century, have jewels and paintings embedded in their metal covers.

A Russian Orthodox crown. CreditFoundation of Russian History

Father Vladimir hoisted one heavy tome. “People who are fleeing from their homeland, look what they’re carrying,” he said.

The foundation also owns typewriters used by Russian Orthodox monks, glittering imperial banners, church vestments and crystal goblets etched with various empresses’ initials. Drawers are devoted to artifacts from the sites of the Romanov family’s imprisonment and assassination and from the estate of Eugenia Smith, a Rhode Island woman who claimed to be the last czar’s youngest daughter, Grand Duchess Anastasia.

A delicate white blouse at the foundation belonged to the real Anastasia, or perhaps one of her three sisters. A tiny khaki military jacket was made for their brother, Alexei. A single pearl earring survives from their mother, Alexandra.

The monastery, founded in the 1920s by exiled monks, also contains chapels steeped in incense smoke, crypts, libraries, stained-glass windows in jewel tones, and murals of bejeweled saints and martyrs. In some corridors, paintings and photographs depict religious leaders who were imprisoned or killed or who lost family members during Soviet persecutions.

Russophiles and scholars including the historian Edward Kasinec have been making research pilgrimages to Jordanville. Mr. Kasinec said in an interview that other unpublished Romanov documentation still lurks in various institutions and private collections. “There are so many things that are squirreled away,” he said.

Fabergé works are also making an appearance this spring. A La Vieille Russie, a gallery in New York, is now showing Fabergé works (with six- and seven-figure prices) that Romanovs gave to their family and favorites; the doctor who presided at imperial births received a hot-pink enamel snuffbox. From April 14 to 17, the London dealer Wartski will display a gold Fabergé egg with a watch tucked inside, which Emperor Alexander III gave to his wife, Maria, as an Easter present in 1887.

The three-inch egg, encrusted with diamonds and sapphires and set on a stand with lion’s paws, turned up a few years ago at the home of an American scrap-metal dealer. The dealer had paid about $14,000 for it at a flea market, based on its weight alone. The Soviets had sold it in 1922. It last appeared in public in 1964, its czarist origins forgotten, at a Parke-Bernet auction in New York shortly before Sotheby’s bought the company.

On April 8, a Sotheby’s sale in New York will include a Fabergé miniature lapis urn (estimated at $40,000 to $60,000) said to have belonged to Grand Duke Nicholas, a cousin of the last czar; a Fabergé eagle broach ($8,000 to $12,000), made as a souvenir for Alexei’s baptism in 1904; and memorabilia ($5,000 to $7,000 for the lot) from an aristocratic army colonel who tried to protect the Kremlin from the Bolsheviks in 1917.

A blouse owned by one of the royal sisters, who included Anastasia.CreditFoundation of Russian History

On April 9, Christie’s in New York will offer nine lots of archival material (with estimates of between $800 and $7,000 each) from descendants of Nicholas II’s sister Xenia. Family photos and hand-painted postcards are for sale along with gloves, stockings, poems, prayers and scraps of pink sashesand embroidery. On April 10, Bonhams in New York will offer about 60 Russian icon paintings (with estimates starting at a few thousand dollars each) acquired by an American ambassador to the Soviet Union just beforeWorld War II. The Soviets sold him portraits of saints in gilded and silver frames that have a few scars where gemstones were gouged out.

Surveys of czarist-era antiques including Fabergé wares are now on view or will soon appear at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Mass.; the Hillwood museum in Washington; the Houston Museum of Natural Science; the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts; theKunsthistorisches museum in Vienna; and Harrods in London. Museums devoted to Fabergé have opened in St. Petersburg, Russia, and Baden-Baden, Germany; much of the German collection will appear in the historian Cynthia Coleman Sparke’s new book, “Russian Decorative Arts” (Antique Collectors’ Club).

At Jordanville, the Fabergé contingent includes a 1909 portrait of Nicholas II’s cousin Grand Duke Konstantin, with his eight children and his four palaces. One son died of World War I battlefield wounds, and the Bolsheviks executed three others and dumped their bodies down a mine shaft. But the buildings still stand.


“Vernacular photography,” in the trade, refers to images that are generally unsigned, produced by amateurs and puzzling enough that viewers like to come up with their own back stories.

“You bring your own aesthetic, emotional baggage and articulation to these images,” Daile Kaplan, the director of photographs and photo books at Swann Auction Galleries in Manhattan, said during a preview of the company’s first sale devoted to vernacular photography.

Lots for the April 17 sale (with estimates starting at a few hundred dollars each) depict nudists, criminals, cross-dressers, store mannequins, murder victims and early aviators. A few have been printed on vases, paperweights, jewelry, chocolate boxes, mirrors, key chains, jigsaw puzzles and lampshades.

Some are dated and clearly captioned. There are portraits of 1880s Vietnamese lepers, early 1900s Jamaican dockworkers, 1940s New Jersey beauty pageant contestants and 1960s moonshiners under arrest in Georgia.

Swann’s consignments came from collectors who had spent years sifting through websites, flea markets and antiques fairs. To find anything that falls into the rather fuzzy category of vernacular photography, Ms. Kaplan said, “you have to be a patient person.”

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