In the fall of 2018, the Frick Art Reference Library received several hundred auction catalogs as part of a gift from A La Vieille Russie, an antiques firm in Manhattan. I was tasked with processing the catalogs, a fascinating experience for me because they contained photographs of immaculately designed objects created by the workshop of Peter Carl Fabergé (1846–1920), the legendary jeweler of tsarist Russia. As a result, I became interested in knowing more about A La Vieille Russie and investigated the history of the company, gaining insight into its founding and fondness for Fabergé.
Jacob Zolotnitsky founded A La Vieille Russie in Kiev in 1851. By the end of the nineteenth century, the firm had two prominent locations in the center of the city and had built a strong reputation trading in antique jewelry, snuff boxes, silver, and Russian and European porcelain (Paris 2010, 2). Following the Russian Revolution, the Zolotnitsky family fled Kiev and relocated the company to Paris. A La Vieille Russie became an intellectual hub for Russian immigrants, such as actors, musicians, nobility, and members of the royal family. Among them were Vasily Kachalov, an actor, and Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna. Alexander Schaffer relocated the firm to New York City in 1941, becoming a partner in A La Vieille Russie and, eventually, its sole owner.
The company’s donation of auction catalogs to the Frick reflects the firm’s interest in Fabergé. As I browsed through the catalogs and looked at the photographs of Fabergé objects, I could see the meticulous care with which each work was made. Fabergé’s workshop was renowned for its intricate designs, and it was said that when an object failed to meet his standards, he smashed it with a mallet (Paris 2010, 17). Fabergé established military-like discipline among his craftsmen to ensure the highest-quality product because many of his clients were members of the Russian royal family. For example, I saw exquisite snuff boxes with painted portraits of Tsar Nicholas II that depicted him as a noble and dignified person. The images acted as propaganda that asserted the authority of the tsar. In my opinion, they captured the privilege, power, and semi-divine status of the royal family at the turn of the twentieth century. It also reminded me of the political consequences that befell the royal family during the Russian Revolution due to its opulence.
The opportunity to work with the auction catalogs gave me a new perspective on Fabergé. These objects, created with such care and craftsmanship by his workers, attest to the extravagance of the House of Romanov—and the relationship between beauty and power.
To view the records for the catalogs from the A La Vieille Russie gift, see FRESCO.
A La Vieille Russie à Paris: Fabergé and Imperial Russia at the Crossroads of Cultures. Exh. cat. Paris (Didier, Aaron & Cie), 2010.