THE BAY TREE EGG: A FABERGÉ IMPERIAL EASTER EGG PRESENTED BY EMPEROR NICHOLAS II TO HIS MOTHER THE DOWAGER EMPRESS MARIA FEODOROVNA AT EASTER 1911
topiary tree formed as a profusion of carved nephrite, finely
veined leaves and jeweled fruit and flowers on an intricate
framework of branches, the fruit formed by champagne diamonds,
amethysts, pale rubies and citrines, the flowers enameled white
and set with diamonds, a keyhole and a tiny lever, hidden among
the leaves, when activated open the hinged circular top of the
tree and a feathered songbird rises, flaps its wings, turns
its head, opens its beak and sings, the gold trunk chased to
imitate bark and planted in gold soil is contained in a white
quartz tub applied with a gold trellis chased with flowerheads
at the intersections and further applied with swags of berried
laurel enameled translucent green and pinned by cabochon rubies,
the central rubies edged by diamonds, each foot of the tub also
applied with chased gold rosettes set with cabochon rubies and
diamonds, the corners of the tub with pearl finials, the square
carved nephrite base in two steps with a miniature nephrite
fluted column at each corner set with chased gold mounts, each
column with a reeded gold cap surmounted by a pearl nestled
in translucent green enamel leaves, the swinging gold chains
between the columns formed as pearl flowers with translucent
green enamel leaves, inscribed Fabergé in Cyrillic
with the date 1911 on lower front rail of the tub.
First known in 1935 as a Bay Tree Egg, this egg which had since 1947 been incorrectly labeled as an Orange Tree, was given by Tsar Nicholas to his mother the Dowager Empress on April 12, 1911. It has recently been correctly identified as a bay tree, based on the original Fabergé invoice:
“9 April. 1 large egg shaped as a gold bay tree with 325 nephrite leaves, 110 opalescent white enamel small flowers, 25 diamonds, 20 rubies, 53 pearls, 219 rose-cut diamonds, 1 large rose-cut diamond. Inside the tree is a mechanical song-bird . [It stands] in a rectangular tub of white Mexican onyx on a nephrite base, with 4 nephrite columns at the corners suspending green enamel swags with pearls St. Petersburg, June 13, 1911 . 12,800 rubles.” 1
In addition, it is identified as a bay tree when catalogued among the items removed from the Anichkov Palace of the Dowager Empress to the Kremlin Armory (“ Nephrite bay tree on base, gold mounted with varicolored precious stones and with song bird” ) 2 and again among the treasures transferred to Sovnarkom in 1922 (“ 1 nephrite tree with singing bird, gold ornaments, rose-cut diamonds, topazes, pearls and rubies” ) . 3
The model for the Bay Tree Egg is an eighteenth-century singing-bird tree of which numerous examples are recorded. A similar mechanical singing-bird tree was sold by Sotheby's at the Mentmore Tower Sale, May 18, 1977, lot 49 (ill. on p. 218). Singing-bird trees were apparently already known in the sixteenth century. Agostino Ramelli 4 illustrates a vase with a singing-bird tree, which he describes as “ une sorte de vase qui donnera grand plaisir et contentement à toute personne qui se délectera de voir entendre les sifflets etc ..” This model was driven by air, the birds beat their wings and opened their beaks, while their song was imitated on flutes. In 1709, an automaton was described in Basel, Switzerland, as “ un arbre artificiel où il est représenté dans cet arbre 24 oiseaux de diférante spèce avec un coq et une poule chantant chacun leur chant diférent comme s'il estoit naturel. ” 5
Interestingly, there is also a parallel in contemporary architecture, the cupola of the Vienna Secession Exhibition Hall, built by Joseph Maria Olbrich in 1897-98, which shows a related foliate openwork dome (see ill. below). Fabergé's connection to the Viennese Secession and to the Wiener Werkstätte, founded in 1903, need yet to be analyzed. There seems to be no doubt that the sparse geometric forms of Joseph Hoffman made their mark on the late oeuvre of the Russian master.
The egg was confiscated by the Provisional Government in 1917 and transferred from the Anichkov Palace to the Kremlin. It was one of nine eggs sold by Antikvariat to Emanuel Snowman ofWartski around 1927. It has since passed through the hands of five different owners and was sold by Mrs.Mildred Kaplan to Malcolm Forbes in 1965 for $35,000.
1997, p. 197 (Russian State Archive, Moscow stock 468, inv.
32, file 1663, p. 83 v.).
2. Op. cit. (Moscow Kremlin Armory, stock 20, inv. 1917, file 5).
3. Op. cit. (Moscow Kremlin Armory, stock 20, file 23, 1922, begun 26 January 1922, completed August 22, 1922).
4. Agostino Ramelli, Le Diverse e artificiose machine. Paris, 1588. Engraving illustrated in Alfred Chapuis and Edouard Gélis, Le Monde des Automates , Geneva 1984, Vol. II, p. 81 “Les oiseaux chantants”).
5. Op. cit., p. 85.