"Making money from visitors' admission tickets is not the point of my exhibitions. In any case, I don't need the money," says Alexandre Ivanov. And yet the millionaire, who collects and is a well-known expert on the works of Carl Fabergé (1846-1920), was not "born in a shirt", as the Russians say – meaning that he didn't have an easy start. His father died when he was two, and he was brought up in Ostrov by a mother who was a house painter. Law studies at university honed the innate business sense of the man who later, in 1993, would open the country's first private museum in Moscow (the Russian National museum), and found a second dedicated to Fabergé in 2009 in Baden-Baden, Germany. We talk to a businessman who adores art history and has written several books.
Why this passion for Fabergé, and what does he represent for you?
Anyone who has ever held a Fabergé egg in their hands is bitten for life. This great Russian master was truly the only creator of his kind, because his style remains inimitable. He never spawned an artistic movement whose exponents could have been confused with him, though many tried, including Cartier. And whenever Westerners talk about Russian culture, the two great achievements they spontaneously mention are Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" and Fabergé's eggs. This artist jeweller is the very embodiment of the Russian identity, of which I am very proud.
How many works are housed in your Baden-Baden Fabergé museum – the only one in the world dedicated to the jeweller?
It contains nearly 4,000 pieces by Fabergé, which I started collecting in 1992, and which attract visitors from all over the world throughout the year. They are also delighted to discover two other permanent exhibitions. One is called "The World's Gold" which features around 1,000 objects made from the precious metal. They include an extremely rare Aztec bowl dating from the 4th century BC, and two sculptures of birds from the gardens of Moctezuma, in Mexico. The theme of the third permanent exhibition is Western European works from the early 19th to the early 20th century.
What is the most impressive piece in this third collection?
A gold and enamel bowl by Lucien Falize, a precursor of Art Nouveau, made in the Renaissance style. At the end of the 19th century, this famous French jeweller went to St Petersburg to present his creations to the imperial court. The bowl in question was exhibited at Baron von Stieglitz's National Academy of Art and Industry. Dazzled by its beauty, Nicholas II wanted to buy it, but it cost so much that the Tsar had to abandon the idea. Since its founding, the Baden-Baden museum has been listed in the federal register of German museums thanks to the quality of its collections.
As cultural institutions recognised by the Russian and German governments, do your museums receive State subsidies?
I have never asked for or received any financial contributions for my museums. Assuming entire responsibility for the initiatives I take is a matter of principle. And given that I am not exactly poor, I can take on all these costs without any problem. However, if I want to buy an object worth a great deal, I part with a few other less important pieces (...), although I buy more than I sell.
The price of Fabergé pieces is constantly rising. How do you account for this?
I think there are probably two reasons. The first is their quantity: 120,000 works are listed, and there are 28,000 circulating in the market. But there are only fifty-two imperial Easter eggs, seven being in private collections. The price of one of these pieces now varies between €30 to 40 million, when fifteen years ago I bought one for under €10 million. Today, it could sell for up to €60 million. The second reason is that, unlike works by Leonardo da Vinci, which have always had extremely high price indexes, those of Fabergé have gradually gained in value. Hence this exponential surge in their cost.
According to art expert Vladimir Teteriatnikov, the Bolshevik government used the jeweller's hallmarking tools to make fakes. Is that true?
No, that's a legend. By that time, all Fabergé's master craftsmen, who knew all the trade secrets, had left Russia. But it is true that the American businessman Armand Hammer, whose pencil factory was confiscated by the Bolsheviks, succeeded in getting his collection of art works out of the country, including Fabergé's original hallmarking tools. These had been requisitioned from the jeweller and were sold to Hammer by a shady government official. Once in the US, he used them to produce fakes, which he sold alongside genuine works by the master bought in Russia. Meanwhile Carl Fabergé's sons, Alexander and Yevgeny, moved to Paris in the 1920s and set up a business, Fabergé & Cie, producing nearly a thousand pieces signed with their name. In this case, we can't talk about fakes, especially since these pieces were produced by their father's master craftsmen, who had followed the brothers to France.
Aren't you afraid that your three books will be used as guides by forgers? After all, they reveal the secrets for authenticating original pieces…
In theory, anything might happen. But from a practical point of view, it is virtually impossible, both technically and stylistically, to reproduce works of the same quality. There was a time when Sotheby’s was "had" when it sold some enamel pieces that turned out to be fakes made in the US. And yet the quality of the enamel was considerably superior to pre-revolutionary Russian enamel. The objects themselves were very beautiful – but fake, all the same…
You stage Fabergé exhibitions in out-of-the-way regions as well in large cities. Why?
Today, fewer than 1,000 works by this artist are now in Russia; 20,000 are in Western Europe and 28,000 in private collections. So I don't see much good in keeping my pieces locked up in a safe! It's important for me to show my collection to people who don't necessarily have the cultural opportunities provided by big cities. Why? Because it revives their sense of pride and helps them lift their heads high again.