Thursday, 26 July 2007

Collecting a nest egg

eggTHESE days Easter is all about sofa sales, chocolate eggs and propaganda designed to transfer cash from your pocket to shop till with not a huge amount to show for it, except a big credit card bill.

If you're a Russian billionaire, you could do like prominent Russian industrialist Victor Vekselberg and spend some real money investing in a nest egg by master Russian goldsmith Peter Carl Fabergé.

Fabergé turned Easter gifts into an art form with the fabulous be-jewelled creations he made for the Russian Tsars and their families.

You'll recall Mr Vekselberg was in the news recently when he bought the Forbes Collection of nine of the eggs just ahead of a New York auction that was expected to raise more than $90 million.

Before such excesses, Russian custom had it that Easter was celebrated with the exchange of three kisses and the gift of an egg which was regarded as a symbol of the Resurrection.

The Russian Imperial family continued this tradition in lavish style. In 1885, Czar Alexander III commissioned a fabulous egg from Fabergé as a surprise Easter gift for his wife, the Empress Marie Feodorovna.

Alexander (he reigned from 1881-1894) subsequently commissioned a Fabergé egg for her each Easter until his death, whereupon his son, Nicholas II, took over the family tradition.

In turn, Nicholas (1894-1917) commissioned not one but two eggs, one for his mother - then the Dowager Empress - and one for his own wife, the new Empress Alexandra Feodorovna.

For today's collectors there is no shortage of "objets de vertu" from Fabergé's workshops with an Easter flavour.

At the height of his career in the 1900s, he employed more than 500 assistants, designers, modellers, gem cutters, goldsmiths and enamellers in branches in Moscow, Kiev and London, so it's not surprising.

Peter Carl Fabergé (1846-1920) was born of Huguenot extraction in St Petersburg, where his father, Gustav, ran a silver and jewellery shop.

He trained there and subsequently travelled throughout Europe, before taking over the family firm and developing it to become one of the leading businesses in the city.

The appearance of the Imperial Easter eggs led to a flood of commissions from rich patrons from throughout Europe and far less expensive Easter eggs were made for export abroad.

Many of these small but delightful eggs were made from precious metals and hardstones to be worn as necklaces and bracelets. They still turn up in Western auction sales.

In time, the Fabergé workshops began to produce a huge range of objects but it is the miniature hardstone sculptures of animals and Russian peasants and his charming baskets of imitation flowers made from gemstones, crystal, enamel and gold that are among the most charming.

However, instead of putting all your Easter investments in one basket, why not diversify ... and but a real nest egg?

Attractive Staffordshire pottery nest eggs - actually tureens for boiled eggs - like the couple pictured here make charming additions to any breakfast table.

They date from the mid to late 19th century and were made by the same back-street potters who churned out flatback chimney pieces.

Their purpose was simple: once the family's eggs were boiled, the tureens were filled with hot water in which to convey them from the kitchen to the sideboard or serving table.

There the eggs were transferred to pottery, porcelain, silver or plated egg stands to be passed around the breakfast table.

Nest eggs change hands today for serious money. Don't be surprised to pay £400-600 for a good old example that is hand-painted and colourful.

Today's collectors should beware the reproduction nest eggs that abound. They remain popular as colourful receptacles for storing eggs and as such could dupe the unwary should they be passed off as old.

It was the Victorians who made a meal out of breakfast, so the period up to the 1900s was also a golden period for egg stands and egg cups.

If you already collect a certain type of old porcelain, you're almost sure to find both to match your service.

My love of egg cups comes from my childhood. After scoffing the contents of a boiled egg, I recall always turning it over in the egg cup and pretending it was unopened.

When scolded for having wasted it, I would bash the top with my spoon to reveal an empty shell! Well, as a seven year old, it amused me.

The very first eggcups were probably made from wood, crafted simply from a single block of wood on a turner's lathe.

Their only decoration was restricted to concentric grooves on the base, or cup, but well-figured wood ensured their beauty.

Nowadays a collector would call such a thing an example of treen and be prepared to pay £15-£50 for a single example, depending on its age.

In fact, you could pay as much as £1,000 for some treen examples, in sets of six or eight complete with elegant stands.

The best are those with turned stems terminating in an acorn knops and a turntable action similar to a Lazy Susan. They date from circa 1730-1800.

By about 1750, porcelain manufacturers had caught on to the idea.

Worcester was among the first with tall, pretty and elegant examples that were decorated with hand-painted floral sprays. Early examples can fetch a great deal of money.

One particularly fine pattern from the Worcester factory worth searching out is called the Queen Charlotte, which dates from circa 1800.

By 1760, the Bow factory was making an exceptionally simple all white eggcup decorated with prunus leaves in relief. Price today would be £500-£600, purely as a result of rarity.

Similarly, in 1790, another all white eggcup was being made in Leeds creamware.

Its only decoration was simple piercing around the rim, but a single example is now worth £175-£200, again through rarity.

By now, manufacturers were offering sets of eggcups with breakfast services, either decorated or plain white and some big enough to hold duck eggs, which were popular in Georgian England.

Caughley (pronounced Calf-ly) was one such pottery that specialised in duck eggcups, made circa 1790-1799, with a handle and hand-painted in underglaze blue flowers.

The purist egg cup collector would go for one example from each of the major manufacturer - say Crown Derby, Coalport, Spode and, of course, Worcester.

Singles of this kind of quality might cost £15-£75 apiece. They're sure to go up in value, as sure as eggs is eggs!

Picture shows a good mid-19th century Staffordshire nest egg. Best examples are well modelled and painted in vibrant colours, usually orange and black, while the base is always modelled as a basket and painted yellow or ochre. This example is worth the top end of £400-600



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