Faberge Fan Explains His Fascination

BloombergIvanov holding a Faberge rabbit once owned by a Bulgarian crown prince.
Alexander Ivanov has written himself into auction history as the man who spent $17.7 million on an egg.

When the hammer came down for a record price on the gold-and-pink enamel Rothschild Faberge Egg at a Christie's International Russian art sale in London on Nov. 28, heads turned to the back of the room toward Moscow collector Ivanov. Outside the world of Russian art dealers, few had ever heard of him.

He explained in an interview what made him spend so much when Imperial eggs, made for the tsars, had traditionally been the most sought after. Ivanov said he had found documents proving that the 1902 piece, an engagement gift to Baron Edouard de Rothschild, "was Faberge's most expensive, finest, and largest egg ever."

The price he paid included commission, he said: "The real price on the Rothschild Egg is around ?12 million [$23.6 million] to ?13 million. We were ready to pay that much."

After decades of communism, Russian businessmen are taking advantage of their country's growing economy to make fine-art purchases.

"Rothschild wanted to be seen as the world's most powerful and richest man, and he wanted an egg better than those made for the tsar," Ivanov said. The egg, previously owned by the Rothschild banking family, has a clock and a diamond-set cockerel that pops up every hour and flaps its wings.

Ivanov's private gallery is called the Russian National Museum and exists online, at Rnm.ru. Now, flush with cash and confidence, Ivanov plans to open museums in two countries.

"Our mission is to bring Russian art back to Russia," Ivanov said, sitting in his office a few blocks from the Kremlin. "The Rothschild Egg is still in London, it's paid for, and when we get the export license we'll bring it to Moscow."

Visits to Ivanov's gallery are currently by appointment only. A guard with a machine gun sits at the entrance. The office is crammed with 17th-century Orthodox icons, 19th-century paintings, Faberge works, and Roman vases. Photos of President Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Alexy II hang on the wall.

Ivanov, 45, said he began collecting Faberge in the late 1980s after graduating in law from Moscow State University, and just as he was "making a fortune" importing computers. He now has about 3,000 Faberge pieces.

Ivanov said he was building a museum in downtown Moscow to house his Faberge collection, Russian paintings and several of his 1920s automobiles. He said the 12,000-square-meter building could cost more than $20 million and be completed in 2010.

The flashy purchase prompted some rivals to speculate that Ivanov acts with Kremlin support. He denied this, and said his wife, Yulia, was his only partner.

"The people in power know us, but we're independent and don't belong to any group," Ivanov said. "We have neither oil wells nor factories; we paid for the Rothschild egg with our own money, and nothing in our collection will be sold."

At a 2004 exhibition, he bought a silver Faberge rabbit decanter and six baby rabbit shot glasses from the heirs of the King of Bulgaria. "When I saw it, I just had to have it," Ivanov said. Nicholas II bought it for 800 rubles as a gift for Crown Prince Boris of Bulgaria.

Ivanov also collects Scythian gold, Roman and Byzantine art and Orthodox icons. He says he also owns about 400 Russian and European paintings. He has eight vintage cars, including a 1923 Rolls-Royce and a 1927 Cadillac.

He estimates his art and antiques collection at $1.5 billion, "more than 10 times" what he spent purchasing the works.

"Prices for Russian art will increase," Ivanov said. "We'll see Russian paintings sell for more than $10 million by the end of this year."