Follow the Stories | Atlanta, TX (2012)
Avoiding "Faux-bergé" Pitfalls
Many of the parts of this egg — its diamonds and its enamel, for example — are not up to Fabergé standards. It bears a Fabergé mark, but experts caution that these are often added to deceive.
From a distance, this decorative egg certainly looks royal, and the owner paid a handsome sum. But up close it revealed itself to be a Fabergé fake.
Fabergé at work, in an undated photo. (Image source: Wikipedia.com)
There are joyful moments on ANTIQUES ROADSHOW — and sinking ones, too, such as the one in Atlanta in which a guest named Kim came bearing a diamond-encrusted egg she had bought for $15,000 at auction, sight unseen.
"You need to use extreme caution," appraiser Sebastian Clarke says of Fabergés. "It's a very treacherous market."
"I'm hoping it's a Fabergé egg," Kim said on-air to Sebastian Clarke, a decorative arts expert with Doyle New York. She was referring to Peter Carl Fabergé, the Russian jeweler, and the opulent Imperial eggs he made for Czar Frederick III of Russia, who gave them to his wife Czarina Maria each Easter. Frederick's son Nicholas carried on the tradition, having Fabergé make one for his wife and mother each year until the Russian Revolution. After the eggs, decorated with gemstones and precious metals, were exhibited for the first time at the 1900 World Exhibition in Paris, commissions poured in to Fabergé, who launched his House of Fabergé. That firm went on to produce upwards of 250,000 decorative art pieces, from tableware to fine jewelry.
Unfortunately, Clarke's assessment of the Atlanta egg was as deflating as any an appraiser can deliver: "Unfortunately, it is not [a Fabergé]," he said. "While the craftsmanship is very, very good, it's an intentional reproduction." He thought the forged fabergé was probably made in Russia within the last 30 years in Russia with the intention to fool buyers such as the Atlanta ROADSHOW guest.
The piece had value — Clarke estimated it might get $3,000 or $4,000 at auction because of the materials and craftsmanship that went into it — but he made it clear that it wasn't worth "the hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars" it would fetch if it were a bona fide Fabergé egg. Peter Schaffer, a Fabergé expert who works at A La Vieille Russie, Inc., a New York City firm, says that larger Fabergé eggs, the crème de la crème of Fabergé pieces, sell for millions of dollars in the rare instances they do come up for auction. Schaffer says that some Fabergé pieces can be had for a few thousand dollars, such as a random fork or spoon from a larger silverware set. But the only Fabergé eggs that might sell for a starting price of about $8,000 are his miniatures, as big as a jellybean.
Don't Trust the Mark
Is there a lesson here that might help prevent other buyers from purchasing Fabergé fakes? There are a few, according to Clarke and Schaffer. They both say that caution is necessary in the world of Fabergé decorative arts, because there might be more fake Fabergés than any other name brand in the world of decorative arts. Schaffer has gone so far as to coin a name for them: "Faux-bergés." Clarke notes that the number of fakes exploded after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, leading to a nouveau riche class who wanted to repatriate works by the Russian Fabergé, and could afford to do so. As demand exploded, so did the prices of all things Fabergé, which hit record levels.
"When something gets to a certain value, and they're in the public eye, people will make fakes," Schaffer says. "They'll do it with Matisse and Chagall paintings. They'll do it with anything."
The first mistake the ANTIQUES ROADSHOW guest in Atlanta made was to put her faith in the "Fabergé" mark found on the piece. "I have a lot of books," she told Clarke, "and I've looked at all the hallmarks." The problem with that approach is that most Fabergé pieces don't have marks. Schaffer says marks that do exist on Fabergé pieces are almost incidental in authenticating a piece because they can be faked better than ever today with lasers. Unscrupulous sellers often take old, high-quality pieces and slap on a "Fabergé" mark to boost its price.
Quality Comes First
But whether it's an old piece that's mistakenly identified as a Fabergé or a new one pieced together to deceive buyers, "the most important thing is the quality of the piece," Schaffer says. "Years ago, Motorola had an advertisement: 'The quality goes in before the name goes on.' That's as true today as it was then. You have to determine it's a Fabergé before you look for a mark." Schaffer adds that putting a Fabergé mark on a fake is akin to slapping a Rolls Royce hood on a VW bug. "It's still a Volkswagen," he says.
Can amateur buyers learn how to spot real Fabergés by looking at books? Both men think not. "You're looking at the same books as someone who is faking the piece," Clarke notes. Because the forgeries are often very well done, Schaffer says that you shouldn't spend good money on Fabergé pieces unless it comes with a guarantee from a reputable auction house or dealer. "You shouldn't trust yourself," he says. "If you do, you might be fortunate, but you might very well be wrong." If an amateur does want to become an expert, Schaffer recommends they "look, look, look, and look" at real pieces, and over the years, they'll learn to see the difference between real Fabergés and fakes.
Until you become an expert, one of the best indications of whether a piece is a real Fabergé is the wording used in auction catalogues produced by reputable dealers. If a catalogue includes the phrase "stamped Fabergé" in a piece's title, it means the auction house believes a piece is genuine and is willing to stand by it. But if the description says "bears the mark of Fabergé," it's just passing along information, not guaranteeing authenticity.
"You need to use extreme caution," Clarke says. "It's a very treacherous market."
For a previous ROADSHOW article on this topic, see:
"Detecting Fabergé Fakes" »
See the See the Atlanta, Georgia (2012) page for a list of all appraisals from this city.
Dennis Gaffney is a freelance writer in Albany, New York. He has been a regular contributor to ANTIQUES ROADSHOW Online since 1998.