A MAGNIFICENT FABERGÉ GEM-SET SILVER CASKET, MOSCOW, 1899-1908
of shaped rectangular form, exuberantly cast in high relief.
Тhe lid with the head of the warrior awakened by Ruslan in Pushkin's epic poem Ruslan and Ludmila, his beard draping the sides and entwining with his armour and the craggy earth, his helmet and shields set with vari-coloured cabochons, a murder of crows perching at his ear, the armour and flared base with Slavic scrolls and palmettes.
Struck K. Fabergé in Cyrillic beneath the Imperial Warrant.
width 29.5cm, 11 3/4 in.; weigh 5038 g
Estimate: 581,665 - 830,950 USD
One of a small group of silver objects specially produced by Fabergé in homage to Russia’s great epic fairy tales, this casket is modelled with the warrior’s head encountered by Ruslan in Alexander Pushkin’s poem Ruslan and Ludmila, published in 1820. The story centres on Ruslan, a heroic knight in search of his bride Ludmila, who has been abducted by the evil dwarf Chernomor.
On his travels, Ruslan comes to what he believes is a giant hill but, coming closer, realises it to be a massive sleeping head. Rulsan awakens the head, which is annoyed and sticks its tongue out at the knight, who in turn lances the tongue and cheek. Ruslan finds a sword under the head and prepares to attack further when the head pleads for mercy and reveals his plight. He was the brother of Chernomor with whom he quarrelled over possession of the magic sword, then used by Chernomor to sever his head. Ruslan and the head find themselves united against a common enemy, and the head gives Ruslan the sword to defeat Chernomor.
Ruslan and Ludmila, with the head sometime characterised as ‘Golova’, remained of interest to artists throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Mikhail Glinka’s opera of the same name was first produced in 1842; for its 1902 production at the Mariinsky Theatre, Konstantin Korovin painted the head for his set design (now in the Pushkin Museum, Moscow). Other depictions include those by Nikolai Ge and Ivan Bilibin; a silent film was produced in 1915 and a feature film in 1972.
The group of Fabergé objects inspired by Russian fairy tales were all made in the Moscow workshop in response to the Pan-Slavic movement in fine and decorative arts, with artists and craftsman seeking to revive traditional Russian art forms, which begin in the mid-19th century; they are among the most distinctly Russian produced in the firm’s history. These highly sculptural objects, including the present lot, were made using the lost wax, or cire perdue, method. The object is first modelled in wax. Then plaster of paris is poured over the wax to form the mould. When molten silver is poured into the mould, the wax melts. After the silver cools, it is submerged in water and the plaster dissipates. The same method was employed in making the casket (fig. 1) cast with Ivan Tsarevich approaching Baba Yaga’s hut, which sold, Sotheby’s Geneva, 7 May 1982, lot 94, its surface oxidised for further effect; a non-oxidised version sold, Christie’s New York, 20 April 2000, lot 77. Another comparison is the samovar (fig. 2), cast as the head of Leshi, a woodland spirit who protects wild animals and forests, sometimes by tickling his victims to death, which sold, Sotheby’s London, 1 December 2004, lot 339.
Given that Fabergé’s production is known for its judicious use of precious materials, a directive from the parsimonious boss, the present lot is striking for its weight, with over five kilos of silver having been lavished on it. All of the fairy tale-inspired objects in this group are similarly weighty, as if the intent was to celebrate Russia’s material wealth and its rich tradition of folklore at the same time.