The Tsar of Russian collectors builds empire made of eggs
Collectors begin to fear as soon as they hear his name because when Alexander Ivanov sets his heart on a work of art, he will most likely obtain it, whatever the cost. Today, Ivanov is the most prolific Russian art collector and creator, with a collection works worth billions of euro. He wields impressive business acumen and has an overflowing passion for beauty. And while he continues to pursue his professional ventures, his heart is captured by a unique love of art. “I do not have a private jet or a yacht. I’m not interested in brand products. I mostly enjoy the feeling I get in discovering and collecting art,” he explains during a rare interview at the Fabergé Museum, which he established in Baden Baden, Germany.
He was born in Pskov 52 years ago, in a remote corner of northern Russia, between Estonia and Latvia, a heritage that is easy to detect in his steely eyes and a combination of Russian impetus and Baltic forbearance. His is a markedly entrepreneurial temperament that even the Soviet era was not able to curb. While studying law, Ivanov earned his money by selling computers, and at the age of thirty began to use the money to buy works of art. “That was when I bought my first Fabergé, a Pelican, in 1992.” Eventually the collection grew in size to the point of being extremely difficult to manage. Ivanov owns four thousand pieces made by Fabergé, the legendary jewellers of the Tsar who are best known for their Easter eggs made for the Russian Imperial court. So he considered creating a museum. Thus, in 2009, at Baden Baden, Ivanov established the Fabergé Museum. The first Russian to establish a museum of this scale in the West, he restructured a building that is now worth EUR 17 million. The security system— priced upward of EUR 1 million —is so sophisticated that even the ‘Pink Panther’ would gasp. “But it is extremely secure and whoever gets in will never get out alive,” he says jokingly. I don’t think he’s joking.
I ask why he had chosen Baden Baden and not Moscow or St. Petersburg where, among other things, Viktor Vekselberg, another billionaire, inaugurated a Fabergé Museum two years ago. “When I decided to build a museum there 10 years ago, Russia was not yet ready for one. Do not forget how intricate Russian bureaucratic procedures can be! And then, I thought that the gallery might also become a cultural centre for Russian emigrants or visitors to Western Europe.” In the building, three floors of delightful beauty, where 700 Fabergé art creations are displayed, showcase about one-sixth of Ivanov’s entire collection, which includes watches, cigarette cases, and vases, plus 100 jade jewellery, such as the Buddha that belonged to Jackie Onassis, as well as gold jewellery made by the Aztecs, Maya, and Incas. The Fabergé Museum is also home to the Karelian Birch Egg, made of Karelian birch with gold and diamonds, and the Constellation Egg made of mountain crystal, gold, diamonds, and nephrite. These two eggs were made in late 1916 to be given as Easter gifts in April 1917. Tsar Nicholas II, however, was deposed in March 1917 before he could give one egg to his mother and the other to his wife.
And all of this now seems to have become entwined in a sort of Arthur Conan Doyle spy story, indicative of the difficult relations between Russia and the West. In December, Ivanov gave the Tsar’s Silver Anniversary Clock and an egg: the legendary Rothschild Fabergé made in 1902 as an engagement present for the wealthy European banking family, to the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. He had acquired it at Christie’s in London in November 2007, paying more than EUR 12 million for it. “It was right to send these two objects back to Russia, and it was more appropriate that Vladimir Putin, and not a private citizen like me, should make the donation to the museum on the occasion of the 250th anniversary.” The donation, however, turned the attention of the international press to past espionage, an activity some say is again on trend. English and German Secret Service attempted, in vain, to intercept the two items that Putin then gifted to the Hermitage.
The value of the museum is so high that an Arab sheik wanted to buy it for EUR 2 billion. “I wasn’t interested in selling it. What is two billion euros anyway? It’s just paper. What would I have done with that money? What profits could I have gained? In the meantime, however, my Fabergé Museum has acquired even greater value.” Ivanov spends between EUR 5 and 10 million a year to boost his collection. “I buy at auctions, but also from private individuals. It depends. Once, for example, before the auction I offered GBP 2.5 million for the 1,500-piece banquet service of the Maharaja of Patiala, which was first used at a state dinner in 1922. Christie’s asked me to wait for the auction, and I ended up paying GBP 2 million for the dining set.” Ivanov speaks of his acquisition adventures with spontaneity, and is rather amused by them. “On another occasion, the painting ‘Eve’ by Anna Lea Merritt was valued at EUR 166 thousand, so I offered GBP 150 thousand. I was turned down initially, but paid GBP 120 000 in the end.”
During our interview, Ivanov shows a personal interest in Leonardo da Vinci. “Would you like to see one of his paintings?” By Leonardo? I ask with great amazement. “Follow me,” he says. He picks up a set of keys, leads me into a room of the Fabergé Palace, and opens a door. There before my eyes is heaven: the works of Leonardo Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Botticelli, and various Chinese paintings. He lifts the paintings, touches them, he enjoys it. “These are not placed in the museum. I keep them here just for me. I created a museum because art belongs to humanity and I want to share it. But this is a personal whim. I keep a few objects just for my own pleasure,” he says, embarking on the backstories of his favourite paintings as if it were story time.
Article by Piera Anna Franini