NEW YORK, Feb. 13 -- An exhibition of more than 400 luxury objects by Russian imperial jeweler Faberge will expose a little-known market in forged Faberge objects that have been discovered in private collections and even museums. 'Faberge in America,' which opens Friday at the Metropolitan Museum, includes an appendage exhibit of 30 forgeries which the exhibit's curator, Dr. Geza von Habsburg, has dubbed 'fauxberges.' Although fake Faberges have been around for decades, Von Habsburg said the market has been flooded recently with tens of thousands of small decorative pieces made in Brooklyn, N.Y. 'It's a multimillion-dollar industry now that Faberge prices have soared to $5.5 million for the last imperial Easter egg to be sold,' said Von Habsburg, considered the world's foremost authority on the art of Carl Peter Faberge, who lived from 1846 to 1920. 'There are some very good expatriate Russian craftsmen working in the Russian neighborhoods of Brooklyn and they turn out reasonably well- made work. The most forged objects, because they are easy to simulate, are the little animals in semiprecious stones and the small sprigs or bouquets of flowers in pots. 'I came across a collection of 165 Faberge forgeries recently in the collection of a medical doctor in Texas who has been investing in them over the years and asked me to make an evaluation. He was convinced they were genuine -- but there wasn't even one piece that was,' Von Habsburg said. A better known collection of 132 Faberge forgeries is that owned by the New Brunswick Museum in St. John.
The array of perfume bottles, inkwells, letter openers, vases, picture frames, small boxes and cigarette cases was donated to the museum by a collector in the 1980s and not indentified as fakes until 1994. 'They are the work of a craftsman I call 'the Brooklyn forger,'' Von Habsburg said. 'Self-styled Russian emigrants travel with suitcases full of such stuff, which they offer as 'imperial.' The most ingenious of the forgers actually transport the pieces back to Russia and put them on the market in St. Petersburg to give them authenticity. 'They're bought up by unsuspecting tourists who think they're getting a bargain, or they come back to the United States in briefcases of traveling salesmen. These are objects that would bring $10,000 to $150,000 at auction if they were authentic, and though the forgeries sell for less, we are talking big money.' All but one of the forgeries in the Met exhibit are from the New Brunwick Museum. The exception -- a wild strawberry plant fashioned of jade-like nephrite and onyx, planted in a chalcedony pot -- is from the Brooklyn Museum and was a l978 bequest from a collector. It seems less graceful than the authenticated Faberge plants, most of which are in rock crystal pots, and the Faberge hallmark is demonstrably forged as well as the initials of famous Faberge workmaster Henrik Wigstrom. But, like many of the enameled works from the Canadian museum, it would pass inspection by an untrained eye. 'If some forgeries are blantantly obvious and poor caricatures of existing Faberge's pieces, others are more daring and sophisticated. But juxtaposition of even the most ambitious forgery with an original, especially under magnification, shows they are worlds apart.' Faberge, driven out of business by the 1917 Russian revolution, produced about 150,000 objects in more than 70 years, almost none of them duplicates. The Met exhibition deals only with objects purchased by American collectors beginning in the 1930s when the tragic fate of Czar Nicholas and his family and romantic notions about imperial court life triggered interest in anything connected with the Romanov family. The focus is on five major collectors. They are publisher Malcolm Forbes, whose collection contained 12 of the 44 surviving imperial Easter eggs, cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, Matilda Geddings Gray, a New Orleans painter, India Early Minshall of Cleveland, and Lillian Thomas Pratt of Richmond, Va. Gray and Minshall bought many pieces from oil tycoon Armand Hammer in the 1930s when he was marketing antiquities for the cash-starved Soviet government. According to Von Habsburg, Hammer's art-dealer brother, Victor, admitted that Stalin's trade commissar, Anastas Mikoyan, supplied Hammer with Faberge hallmarking tools with forgery in mind. Von Habsburg quotes Victor Hammer as saying that a big Faberge sale he and his brother put on in New York in 1938 included both authentic and forged objects which grossed many millions of dollars, with commissions going back to Mikoyan. But no fakes apparently found their way into the Gray and Minshall collections. Also on display are works from more recent collections authenticated by Von Habsburg including small decorative objects owned by TV personality-actress Joan Rivers and her daughter, Melissa, and gold jewel-covered cigarette cases owned by shipping magnate John Traina, husband of popular novelist Danielle Steel. The exhibit will travel to San Francisco in May and will then be seen in Richmond, Va., New Orleans and Cleveland.