Miniature Fabergé Animals That Enchanted the Romanovs and Other Royals Are Up for Sale

Crafted around 1900, the charismatic carvings were inspired by Japanese decorative pendants

Fabergé dormouse
The set of 20 Fabergé carvings is worth an estimated $1.2 million.  Courtesy of Elmwood's

A curious collection of carved Fabergé animal figurines, some of which were once owned by Europe’s royal families, is headed to auction.

Collectively, the 20 artifacts are worth an estimated $1.2 million. Per a statement from Elmwood’s, the London-based auction house behind the May 30 sale, each animal boasts a “distinct personality, with often comical characteristics.”

Fabergé, a Russian jewelry firm known for its decorative eggs, crafted the creatures around the turn of the 20th century. Several of the figurines originated in the Romanov dynasty’s imperial collection. Others are linked to King Paul of Greece, Alexandra of Denmark and Countess Sophie of Merenberg.

Green bowenite frog
A green bowenite frog with a gold jeweled mouth and ruby eyes Courtesy of Elmwood’s

The hardstone animals, none of which measure more than three inches in height or length, include a hen with gold feet, an agate owl, a whimsical quartz pig and an upside-down frog performing a handstand while smiling.

“Close attention was given to the type of stone used for each type of animal, depending on its natural features,” says Elmwood’s in the statement. “The colorful layers of agate meant that it was usually selected for birds, [while] an orange-colored agate was used to impersonate a ginger-haired pig.”

After artisans carved the figurines, the company’s head workmaster polished the animals and added precious jewels such as diamonds, rubies and sapphires.

The miniature animals were popular collectibles among early 20th-century Europe’s elite. They were the brainchild of Peter Carl Fabergé, a trained goldsmith who took over his father’s jewelry business in St. Petersburg in 1864. Carl also created the company’s famous eggs and secured its status as the Russian imperial court’s official goldsmith.

Bowenite mystic monkey
A Fabergé bowenite mystic monkey, modeled after a miniature ivory Japanese sculpture by artist Kaigyokusai Masatsugu Courtesy of Elmwood’s

When designing the carved animals, Carl drew inspiration from netsuke, a type of decorative Japanese pendant that emerged in the 17th century. By the 1800s, “netsuke tended to feature objects that one would see in daily life,” as well as mythological creatures, zodiac animals and kabuki actors, Hollis Goodall, a curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, told Christie’s in 2017.

One item featured in the sale, a bowenite mystic monkey previously owned by the Romanovs, is directly inspired by the work of Japanese craftsman Kaigyokusai Masatsugu. Evoking the phrase “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,” the little monkey covers its eyes and mouth with its hands and playfully uses its feet to cover its ears. Only five of these statues are known to exist; three are housed in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.

Fabergé opened a store in London—its first location outside of Russia—in 1903. The animal statues were an immediate hit. Five years later, in 1908, the company established a dedicated stone-cutting department to meet high demand for the carvings.

Jeweled agate rabbit
A jeweled agate rabbit in its original fitted Fabergé case Courtesy of Elmwood’s

The most expensive sculpture in the set is a rare dormouse figurine estimated to sell for upwards of $150,000. The mouse has silver whiskers and chews on strands of gold straw. Its eyes are crafted from blue sapphires. Emanuel Nobel, a Swedish oil baron whose family established the Nobel Foundation, gifted the item to pioneering engineer Karl Wilhelm Hagelin.

Described by Elmwood’s as “the most historically important standalone collection of Fabergé hardstone carved animals to ever come to market,” the trove was assembled by an anonymous British collector.

“This collection has been amassed through a pure love of Fabergé’s inimitable animals—for their craftsmanship, quality and the unique personalities that they convey,” the seller says in the statement. “While I’m sad to be parting with them, I hope that they will go on to be treasured in the same way as I have loved them over the last eight years.”

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