In the august salons of Sotheby's on Thursday, industrialist Viktor Vekselberg presided over a private party that he could not have imagined during his youth in a country that no longer exists. The billionaire oil and gas baron from Moscow, born 46 years ago in a tiny Soviet town on the Ukrainian-Polish border, made headlines last month by purchasing $100 million worth of Faberge decorative arts. The highlight was nine Easter eggs made for the last czars. With 300 of his new best friends present, including Russian Federation officialdom, he used the caviar-and-champagne setting to introduce a new concept for Russians: philanthropy. The centerpiece is the nonprofit Vekselberg Foundation for Art and Culture that he'd set up to repatriate the historic treasures. And he served notice to his fellow tycoons that it's time for them to give back, too.
"Today, I am expected to be the symbol of Russia," Vekselberg said through an interpreter.
Behind him, a magnified image of a pink enameled egg created a surreal perspective. Lily of the valley blossoms made from pearls suddenly looked as big as pumpkins. And Vekselberg looked a bit like the tiny surprise inside one of his eggs.
"I looked into my heart and I understood that we, the businessmen of Russia, are not the same as we were five years ago," Vekselberg said. "We have changed together with our country."
His offering consists of more than 100 pieces of Faberge collected over decades by Malcolm S. Forbes and consigned to auction by the Forbes sons. The late 19th- and early 20th-century works were the glittering output of the imperial jeweler Carl Faberge, who rose to prominence under the last two czars. Faberge has become synonymous with luxury, fine craftsmanship and precious materials no longer affordable. Having the collection, and especially the eggs, back in Russia presumably will contribute to an understanding of the last gasp of the Romanovs' rule. A promise to make the collection public -- the eggs are scheduled to go on display at the Kremlin in mid-May -- has made Vekselberg a hero back home.
"It's scary," he confided in English. "I was just a businessman, but now. . . . " With paparazzi hovering, he admitted that he and his family are feeling a kinship with rock stars. His son, Sasha, 15, daughter, Irina, 25, an MBA candidate at Yale, and his wife, Marina, were with him. "We're private people. We're not prepared for this," he said.
He has yet to reduce his philanthropy to a sound bite. He mentioned the undeniable beauty of gold, enamel and glittering stones. There is the artistry of each creation, including a tiny gold coronation carriage, which is such an exact miniature that museum curators consulted the Faberge drawings to restore the real carriage. There is the religious significance of Easter eggs. And the historical significance of gifts that commemorate Alexander III and Nicholas II and their wives and children. One egg from 1916 is notably lacking in gold and jewels. It was made during wartime, and marks the beginning of the end as poignantly as decorative arts can do.
Vladimir Voronchenko, who will head the foundation, tried to express the elation that he and Vekselberg are feeling. "It's more important than business, more important than money," he said. "We had really to do something for our country. And it's a really big country. And we're only two small people."
He did not mention, but others did, that the annals of Russian businessmen include tycoons, tough guys, oligarchs and expats who would rather buy property in France or soccer teams in Britain than give back to the Motherland.
"It's important to show to Russia the new face of Russian business," Voronchenko insisted. "We have started to feel social responsibility. It's the right time."
Plans are still vague, but Vekselberg assured that the eggs are only a "first step" in a larger plan to repatriate Russian art. When asked whether he would be spending more money anytime soon, Vekselberg laughed and said, "I don't have so much money."
Actually, with a net worth of $3.3 billion, he ranks No. 143 on Forbes magazine's latest list of the world's richest people.
A few weeks ago, 10,000 New Yorkers queued for three hours in the cold to get a last look at the eggs, eliciting a comparison with scenes created by estate sales of Andy Warhol and Jackie Kennedy, and the Duchess of Windsor's jewels.
When the eggs were unveiled on Thursday, Andrea Fallek made her way quickly to the gold-enameled Coronation Egg. A New Yorker originally from Vienna, she recalled a friend in Florida, who had owned an imperial egg, but kept it locked away in the bank. Fallek suggested she might as well sell it to Malcolm Forbes, which the friend did. Sadly, Fallek had no idea which of the eggs it was.
"I never saw it," she said.
Robert M. Lee, the founder of Hunting World, had flown in from Geneva. He is the current owner of a Faberge imperial egg known as the Love Trophy. He purchased it at auction a decade ago and keeps it locked in a bank in Reno. He found himself fending off dealers at the event.
"It's not for sale," he said, "It's my only egg. I'm not selling it."
If Americans were on hand to say goodbye to the Forbes extravagance, many Russians were there to say hello. Faberge was spirited out of their country and sold off in the tumultuous years after the revolution. Now that one of their own had swooped in like Superman to keep the world's greatest private collection together and make it public, they could only marvel at such an unheard of "gesture."
"People have to spend money not just to help themselves, but to help their country." said Consul General Viacheslav Pavlovskiy, who clearly approved.
No timetable was revealed for the departure of the eggs, which will require special crating. In any case, the party was not the last gasp of Faberge in America.
There is plenty to buy at the Fifth Avenue antique jeweler and Russian specialist A La Vieille Russie. Owner Peter Schaffer was at the party. Earlier in the day, he showed a visitor dozens of Faberge clocks, urns, tiny carved animals, peasant figures, picture frames, sprigs of flowers and fruit. Two pieces were part of 100 items acquired from the Forbes collection: a dazzlingly detailed miniature sedan chair in pink enamel and a miniature dressing table with perfectly rendered ormolu decoration and a top that lifted to display a mirror. Another 200 pieces were on display at the firm's booth at this week's European Art Fair in Maastricht, Netherlands.
Most Faberge collectors, including Forbes, Hillwood's Marjorie Merriweather Post, and even Imelda Marcos, shopped with Schaffer's father who pretty much created the market for Faberge. As Peter Schaffer explained, in the 1920s, Kremlin curators dismissed most of the baubles as too new and too common to save as cultural heritage. Carved Faberge animals were offered to foreign buyers at less than $2 each, Schaffer said. Today, they would cost $10,000 to $150,000.
Schaffer compliments Vekselberg for taking advantage of "an easily assembled political gesture." But he says it's nothing that American capitalists didn't do in their day. He included National Gallery of Art founder Andrew Mellon and Andrew Carnegie in the group of savvy people who bought, and, significantly, gave back in the form of museums and libraries.
"It's exactly the same thing," he said.