Museum’s Fabergé collection sparkles

Gwen Woolf

The intricately crafted boxes, picture frames, bowls, flowers, jewelry, cane handles, animal figures, and religious icons, many made of gold or silver and gilded with diamonds and other gemstones, are wonders to behold. Inside a circular domed gallery, the pièces de résistance — five spectacular Russian imperial Easter eggs — are shown individually in glass cases, allowing close-up viewing from all angles.

After four years of international travel, the famed Fabergé collection — tinged with romance and tragedy — has returned home to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond.

To showcase the Fabergé and other Russian decorative items — the largest public collection outside of Russia — the museum has redesigned and expanded five galleries. Overall, 280 objects are on display.

“Our Fabergé and Russian decorative arts collection is a longtime visitor favorite,” explains VMFA director Alex Nyerges.

While beautiful and opulent, the Fabergécollection has a sad history. The objects were created for Russia’s royal Romanov family and other

European nobility by a firm headed by Russian jeweler Karl Fabergé (1846-1920). Czar Nicholas II, who had been the Russian emperor since 1894, especially enjoyed delighting his wife, Alexandra, with the Easter eggs as gifts. (You may remember the czarina for her controversial association with another historical figure, Grigori Rasputin.) But Nicholas was forced to abdicate the throne in 1917 as the Russian Revolution unfolded, and the family was placed under house arrest.

In the early hours of July 17, 1918, the czar, his wife, their five children, and four attendants were taken to a basement and brutally executed by the Bolsheviks. The bodies were secretly concealed in a pit beneath a dirt road.

Fabergé fled to Switzerland, and many of the 150,000 beautiful objects his firm made were destroyed during the revolution.

The fate of the doomed Romanovs continues to captivate the world. The remains of most of the victims were discovered in 1979 and subsequently exhumed and identified through DNA testing.

In 2007, the bones of son Alexei and one of the daughters (believed to be either Anastasia or Maria) were found in a separate nearby grave. Yet, rumors persisted through the years that 17-year-old Anastasia, the youngest daughter, had survived the massacre and was helped to escape by a sympathetic guard.

The tale captured the public’s imagination and inspired books and movies.

The remains of the Romanovs were reinterred in St. Petersburg, and the family was canonized as “passion bearers” in 2000 by the Russian Orthodox Church inside Russia.

Building the collection

The story’s other thread is how the museum’s Fabergé collection came to be. Between 1933 and 1946, Lillian Thomas Pratt, an art collector and wife of General Motors executive John Lee Pratt, obtained almost 170 objects attributed to the Fabergé firm, plus hundreds of other Russian decorative arts. She bequeathed them to the Virginia Museum in 1947, and her gift comprises the bulk of the museum’s Russian holdings.

With the recent renovation of the Fabergé galleries, interactive components have been added. Touch screens allow you to see how the imperial eggs were constructed and reveal the surprises in their interiors. Another fun digital device lets you design your own eggs.

Insider tip: For those who want an in-depth look at the collection and other aspects of its history, the museum has a new Fabergé website ( and mobile app.

More exquisite art

If you wish to see the best in contemporary crafts and fine arts, the Sugarloaf Craft Festival, Jan. 27–29 at the Dulles Expo Center in Chantilly, Va., is a good bet.

Hundreds of juried artisans from across the country show and sell high-quality handmade items such as jewelry, clothing, pottery, glass, leather, metal, paintings, prints, and specialty foods. Live music, art demonstrations, and children’s entertainment add to the popular show.

The festival, which got its start in 1976 in Gaithersburg, Md., has grown to 11 events a year in the Mid-Atlantic.

Other upcoming shows include April 21–23 in Gaithersburg and April 28–30 in Timonium, Md.

Learn more

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts:

Sugarloaf Craft Festival:

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