Fabergé et Faux-Fauxbergé

There’s an exhibit in Las Vegas at the Bellagio Hotel entitled, “Fabergé Revealed: Jeweler to the Czars.” The exhibit, sponsored by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, features four of the five Russian imperial Easter eggs created by Karl Fabergé, including the famous red-gold “Pelican Easter Egg” (1897) to honor the Dowager Empress of Russia. The exhibit describes these “treasured objects” as “telling one of the most powerful stories in history–the fall of the Russian Imperial Family.”

Among the collection of Easter eggs, jewelry, icons, crosses, cigarette cases, serving dishes, snuff boxes, and photograph frames is a collection of look alikes called “Fauxbergé” that, according to the exhibit, “inundated the Western art market since the 1930s.” Although these pieces may be made of gold, silver, diamonds, emeralds, pearls, rubies, or enamel, they bear inauthentic hallmarks or stamps.

Pelican Egg

Thus, they are not true Fabergé products and do not command anywhere near the value of authentic pieces. Still, they look exquisite and would no doubt fool most people. They certainly fooled me, but then when it comes to the fine arts, I don’t have much to go on other than what I like. If it is sublime, chances are I will like it, even if it’s made of paper or plastic (I have trouble at the checkout counter when they ask me that).

But I was not prepared for what I found at the end of the exhibit in a small alcove where visitors can purchase gifts, mementos, postcards, etc. Some of the same products crafted in the Fabergé style were on sale: jewelry boxes, broaches, enamel Easter eggs, frames, and small pieces of jewelry. These were tourist trinkets not nearly as valuable as the Fauxbergé items on exhibit. I call these Faux-Fauxbergé, since they did not even measure up to the original fakes.

The farther down the scale in authenticity–from Fabergé to Fauxbergé to Faux-Fauxbergé–the greater the shine, glitter, reflection, perfection. In other words, there was an inverse relationship between authenticity and shine. The fanciest pieces were the least authentic and, therefore, the cheapest. But they also caught the ambient light and reflected it in wonderful ways, much better than the real Fabergé.

It would be easy to say that all that glitters is not gold, but there is more going on here, especially in a place like Las Vegas. I think this is really about authenticity. After all, what makes a Fabergé sailor statuette so much more valuable than the Fauxbergé one? Is it all craftsmanship and art? Or is it just the name?

Authenticity is a tricky thing. Something that is authentic may not be any more “real” than a fake version. That’s the sense I get from Herminia Ibarra’s recent article in the Harvard Business Review in which she referred to the ability to change tactics and expressions of character as “adaptively authentic.” This is the ability to adapt to changing situations and conditions rather than remain with a rigid, “This is me, this is who I am” attitude.

If being authentic is about truth, is it possible that the Faux-Fauxbergé pieces are as authentic as the original ones? They both serve aesthetic needs; one of the consumer, the other of the collector. I don’t believe one is necessarily better than the other. The real difference is in knowing the truth about the origin of each piece. It makes all the difference in the world if you know whether the Easter egg in your china cabinet is authentic or an imitation. Trying to pass either one off as the other would be, pardon my French, a faux-pas.

All of this reminds me of the time my mother bought an antique desk and asked me to polish it. I found a hidden draw in the back and decided it would be great fun to forge a letter from Abraham Lincoln and let her find it in the hidden draw. She found it and was ecstatic, so much so that she framed the letter and showed it off proudly to dinner guests. It was only sometime later when somebody asked if it had come with the frame that she began to get suspicious. Eventually, I confessed.

Think of it, though. My mother was happy, the guests were entertained, and I was rolling with laughter (eighth-graders do that). It was a win-win-win, something like three cherries on a slot machine.

Here’s maybe another difference between the original and a fake. I’ve never heard of anyone intentionally throwing out a Fabergé Easter egg. Or a letter from Abraham Lincoln.

“Rosebud,” “Pelican Egg” Flickr photos by “Ras67” shared under a CC BY 4.0 license. Note to self: Don’t mention to anyone else that I like fruitcake. Want more? Go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance.

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