25 July 2018

The Duchess of Marlborough Egg

The Duchess of Marlborough Egg, made by Fabergé in 1902 for Consuelo Vanderbilt (Wikimedia Commons)

As we wrap up our month-long focus on Russia's imperial jewels, we're looking today at an unusual example from Fabergé's series of incredible bejeweled Easter eggs. While most of the eggs were made for the Romanovs, this particular egg was commissioned by an American -- and remained in American hands for a century.

The Duke and Duchess of Marlborough sailing with companions from France to India ahead of the Delhi Durbar, ca. 1902 (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In January 1902, the 9th Duke of Marlborough and his American-born duchess, Consuelo Vanderbilt, headed to Russia to attend the whirlwind of imperial court occasions held annually during the celebrations of the Orthodox New Year. In her memoirs, Consuelo explained that they decided to go because her "husband, who had a weakness for pageantry, wished to play a fitting part in festivities renowned for their magnificence." The couple stuffed their luggage with the necessary gowns, uniforms, and jewels, recruited companions and staff (including a private detective to keep an eye on the gems), and headed east for St. Petersburg.

A famous portrait of Consuelo Vanderbilt during her marriage to the Duke of Marlborough, ca. 1911 (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Consuelo wasn't overly impressed with Russia on the whole, though she was wowed by the balls held at the imperial palaces and by the incredible jewelry worn by the imperial women. (Grand Duchess Vladimir even took Consuelo on a private tour of her jewels, showing her "endless parures" that were "set out in glass cases in her dressing room." Can you imagine? Consuelo expressed relief that she'd bought a new, grand turquoise necklace for the trip.) But while she was there, likely during her visit to Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna's palace, she absolutely fell in love with one feature of Romanov life: the incredible jeweled Easter eggs made for them by Fabergé.

The Duchess of Marlborough Egg (Wikimedia Commons)

The same year, Consuelo decided that she needed a glittering Fabergé egg of her own. She commissioned the firm to make her a large egg in shades of rose and gold that also functioned as a clock, much like a combination egg/clock she may have seen in Marie Feodorovna's collection. Consuelo's clock egg, made of pink and white enamel, gold, rose-cut diamonds, and seed pearls, sits atop a pedestal base that is adorned with love trophies, including torches and arrow, and Consuelo's monogram, "CM." A diamond-studded serpent rests on the base of the egg, slithering toward the clock band; its forked tongue indicates the hour. The egg was made by one of the firm's masters, Mikhail Perkhin, who died the year after the Marlborough egg was made. Consuelo's egg was the only large Fabergé egg ever commissioned by an American.

Ganna Walska, wearing an outfit that reportedly raised eyebrows, attends the opening night of Lohengrin at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, 14 December 1945 (Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

By 1926, Consuelo's life had changed radically. Separated in 1906, she and Marlborough had divorced in 1921. Later that same year, she married a French aviator, Jacques Balsan, and settled in Paris. In the summer of 1926, Consuelo was focused on raising funds to build a new hospital in Vincennes. A charity gift auction was held as part of that fundraising effort, and Consuelo writes that she donated "a Fabergé clock [she] had brought back from Russia" to the auction. The buyer was another woman with American connections: Ganna Walska, the Polish-born wife of Harold Fowler McCormick, son of the founder of International Harvester.

A view of the love trophies adorning the base of the Duchess of Marlborough Egg (Wikimedia Commons)

In Walska, the egg found another eccentric, fascinating owner. An aspiring opera singer -- even though her voice was reportedly mediocre at best -- Walska's career was heavily promoted by McCormick and his fortune. (Orson Welles apparently used their relationship as one of the inspirations for the film Citizen Kane.) McCormick and Walska divorced in 1931, five years after she acquired the Marlborough egg. In 1965, long after her divorce from her last (and sixth!) husband, Walska also decided to sell the egg. She needed funds to continue improvements to Lotusland, her private estate in Santa Barbara, California. The property is now a botanical garden and can be visited by the public.

Detail of the serpent's tail portion of the Duchess of Marlborough Egg (Wikimedia Commons)

A New York auction house, Parke-Bernet, handled the sale. They advertised the egg as an "important wrought gold, rose, and white enamel serpent and egg rotary clock, set with diamonds." Intriguingly, the lot notes for the 1965 auction tried to link the Marlborough egg with royalty, noting, "We believe the monogram to be that of Queen Alexandra, wife of Edward VII. By curious coincidence, the date beneath the clock, 1902, was the year of their coronation and could possibly have been a royal gift. She was an admirer of Fabergé's work, and her collection is now at Sandringham." Of course, we know this is not true; the egg belonged to a member of the aristocracy (Consuelo), not royalty.

Malcolm Forbes and close friend Elizabeth Taylor at the Château de Balleroy in Normandy, 11 June 1988 (MYCHELE DANIAU/AFP/Getty Images)

It's tough to know how much this incorrectly-advertised royal provenance affected the sale of the egg, but one thing is for certain: through the Parke-Bernet sale, the egg became the cornerstone of one of the most important American collections of Fabergé ever assembled. On May 15, 1965, the egg was purchased by Malcolm Forbes, the famous American entrepreneur and magazine publisher. He paid $50,000 for the ornament. It was the first Fabergé egg that he bought; over time, he assembled a collection that reportedly included as many as twelve eggs.

The Duchess of Marlborough Egg (Wikimedia Commons)

After Forbes's death in 1990, the collection stayed together for more than a decade. But in 2004, just before the collection was set to go on the auction block at Sotheby's, nine eggs, including the Marlborough egg, were purchased privately from the Forbes family by the Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg. (The Bay Tree Egg, which we discussed earlier this month, was also part of the collection sold to Vekselberg.) The Marlborough egg and the rest of the Fabergé eggs owned by Vekselberg now reside in his private Fabergé museum in St. Petersburg. Intriguingly, although it was made in Russia by a Russian firm, the 2004 purchase marked the first time that the Marlborough egg was owned by a Russian national.