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Faberge Fan Ivanov Reveals Why He Paid $17.7 Million for an Egg

Interview by John Varoli, Bloomberg News

Feb. 26 (Bloomberg) – Alexander Ivanov has written himself into auction history as the man who spent $17.7 million on an egg.

When the hammer came down for a record price on the gold and pink enamel Rothschild Faberge Egg at a Christie's International Russian art sale in London on Nov. 28, heads turned to the back of the room toward Moscow collector Ivanov. Outside the world of Russian art dealers, few had ever heard of him.

He explained in an interview what made him spend so much when Imperial eggs, made for the Czars, had traditionally been the most expensive. Ivanov said he had found archival documents proving that the 1902 piece, an engagement gift to Baron Edouard de Rothschild, ''was Faberge's most expensive, finest, and largest egg ever.''

The price he paid included commission, he said: ''The real price on the Rothschild Egg is around 12 million pounds ($23.6 million) to 13 million pounds. We were ready to pay this much.''

After decades of Soviet communism and repression, wealthy Russian businessmen are taking advantage of their country's growing economy to make fine-art purchases. While Russian collectors are active on almost all art markets, items of their national heritage are the most popular.

Ivanov, dressed in a light gray-blue suit with no tie, said: ''Rothschild wanted to be seen as the world's most powerful and richest man, and he wanted an egg better than those made for the Czar.'' The egg, previously owned by the Rothschild banking family, has a clock and a diamond-set cockerel that pops up every hour and flaps its wings.

Ivanov's private gallery is called the Russian National Museum and only exists in cyberspace, at Now, flushed with both cash and confidence, Ivanov plans to open museums in two countries.

Bringing It Home

''Our mission is to bring Russian art back to Russia,'' Ivanov said, sitting in his office a few blocks from the Kremlin. ''The Rothschild Egg is still in London, it's paid for, and when we get the export license we'll bring it to Moscow and exhibit it, hopefully in late March.''

Ivanov's gallery is currently by appointment only. A guard with a machine gun sits at the entrance. The office is crammed with 17th-century Orthodox icons, 19th-century paintings, Faberge works, and ornate Roman vases. Photos of President Vladimir Putin and Orthodox Patriarch, Alexis II, hang on the wall.

Ivanov, 45, said he began collecting Faberge in the late 1980s shortly after graduating in law from Moscow State University, and just as he ''made a fortune'' importing computers. Today he has about 3,000 Faberge pieces. Several hundred can be seen on his Web site.

Kremlin Denial

The Rothschild Egg purchase prompted some rival dealers to speculate that Ivanov acts with support from the Kremlin. He denied this, and said his wife, Yulya, is his only partner.

''The people in power know us, but we're independent and don't belong to any group,'' said Ivanov, as he handled a rare silver Faberge rabbit decanter. ''We have neither oil wells nor factories; we paid for the Rothschild egg with our own money, and nothing in our collection will be sold.''

Ivanov said he's building a museum in downtown Moscow to house his Faberge collection, Russian paintings and several of his vintage 1920s automobiles. He said the approximate 12,000-square- meter building could cost more than $20 million and be completed in 2010.

''While I haven't seen the collection, if it does have 3,000 Faberge items, then it counts among one of the largest Faberge collections in the world,'' said Mark Schaffer, a director at A La Vieille Russie, a New York gallery specializing in Russian decorative art and Faberge works.

Must-Have Rabbit

Ivanov's passion for Faberge seems unquenchable. At the 2004 Munich exhibition, ''Faberge and Cartier: Rivals at the Czar's Court,'' he bought the silver Faberge rabbit decanter and six silver baby rabbit shot glasses from the heirs of the Bulgarian king.

''When I saw it, I just had to have it,'' said Ivanov, smiling as he showed off the large silver rabbit. Nicholas II bought it for 800 rubles as a gift for Crown Prince Boris of Bulgaria.

Ivanov said his priority for 2008 is opening a museum in the German spa city of Baden Baden to exhibit works by Faberge and his competitors Morozov, Sazikov, and Bolin.

''We expect up to a million visitors a year, and at 10 euros a head, that's 10 million euros ($14.83 million) annual income,'' said Ivanov. ''I can say with 100 percent certainty that museum activity is big money. Exhibitions, loans, and licensing images are how we earn money and finance our purchases.''

Baden Baden officials said negotiations are in the early stages, and declined to comment.


Ivanov also collects Scythian gold, Roman and Byzantine art, Orthodox icons, and says he has about 400 Russian and European paintings. He also owns eight vintage cars, including a 1923 Rolls-Royce and a 1927 Cadillac.

He estimates his art and antiques collection at $1.5 billion, ''more than 10 times'' what he spent purchasing the works.

''Prices for Russian art will increase,'' said Ivanov. ''In 1993, an Aivazovsky painting that sold for $40,000 today goes for $2 million to $3 million. We'll see Russian paintings sell for more than $10 million by the end of this year.''

He joins other collectors from Russia and the Ukraine who are also amassing big collections. Banking billionaire Petr Aven has one of the finest private collections of Russian modernist paintings and early Soviet-era porcelain; oil and mining billionaire Viktor Vekselberg bought the Forbes Faberge Collection in February 2004, and also owns Aurora Fine Art Investments, an art investment fund.

Construction-industry executive Marina Mamontova has more than 250 artworks; food-processing magnate Alexander Tabalov owns more than 200 19th-century and early 20th-century paintings and mining billionaire Victor Pinchuk owns at least seven Damien Hirst works.

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