A Closer Look at the Carl Fabergé Teaset

An exquisite teaset made by Carl Fabergé – comprising teapot, milk jug and sugar bowl – was sold at the auction of Dora Gordine and Richard Hare’s silver collection on 15 November 1994 in Geneva. Here volunteer Louise Dear takes this teaset as a starting point to explore Gordine and Hare’s collection and the House of Fabergé.

On visiting the Winter Palace antiques shop in Kensington Church Street – where many important Fabergé items and Russian historical artworks were traded – Dora Gordine and Richard Hare were offered tea by one of the partners in the business Margot Tracey.[1] She later described Dora and Richard as ‘health fanatics’ and recalled that no beverages could be found to suit them except blackcurrant juice.[2] Awkward, perhaps, for the dealer and ironic for a couple who collected such a large number of tea and coffee services during their marriage and who seemed to very much enjoy tea drinking in the Russian style. Russian tea typically comprises black tea, sugar, sometimes pineapple, lemon and orange juice. My sympathies to Margot, forced to serve whatever beverage she could get her hands on.

This snapshot in time fascinated me – who gets served tea when entering a shop in current times? Only the rich and privileged, I would think, and now, in lockdown Britain, it would probably be refused on health and safety grounds. Tracey had first met the devoted couple at a party in Belgravia in around 1946/47. Dora and Richard were part of the aristocratic and liberal elite who had become serious collectors of all things Russian since their marriage in 1936 and continued to accrue beautiful objects until Richard’s untimely death in 1966.

With Lake Geneva as a backdrop, the couple’s silver collection was presented for auction at the Hotel de la Paix, in November 1994, following Gordine’s death in 1991. The auction catalogue included four stunning Russian nineteenth-century teapots and four covetable nineteenth-century coffee pots, along with many tea caddies, milk jugs, sugar bowls, teaspoons and lemon-tea glass holders. Also sold was a samovar, which is a metal urn (in this case silver) widely used in Russia to boil water for tea, as well as a composite tea equipage that typically comprises all you need to make tea: a teapot, teaspoon, tea tongs, mote spoon (a small spoon with a pierced bowl for removing the leaves from a cup of tea), a tea kettle and tea canister.

The Fabergé bachelor’s teaset, pictured at the top of the post, held great appeal to the auctioneers, who were ‘of course pushing to include famous names to attract buyers to the auction’, recalled Brenda Martin, the first curator of Dorich House Museum.[3] ‘Famous names’ do not come much more recognisable or pulse-racing than the work of Peter Carl Fabergé (1846–1920). Although today the House of Fabergé is famed for its Imperial Easter eggs, it made many more objects ranging from silver tableware to fine jewellery, all of which were also of exceptional quality and beauty. In addition to its St Petersburg premises, the company had branches in Moscow, Odessa, Kiev and London and produced some 150,000 to 200,000 objects from 1882 until 1917. In October 1918, the iconic company was nationalised by the state and its stock was confiscated. The Russian House of Fabergé was no more and Carl Fabergé fled to Lausanne, Switzerland, and died there, brokenhearted, according to his family.[4] His sons Eugène and Alexander went on to establish Fabergé et Cie in Paris in 1924.

Decades later, the bachelor’s tea service was presented for sale a mere 40-minutes train journey away from Lausanne in Geneva. Both practical and beautiful, lot 150 was described in the auction catalogue as: ‘By Karl Fabergé: A late 19th Century Russian three-piece bachelor’s Teaset of spherical form with matt finish, with ox-eye feet and handles and gilt interiors, Moscow, 1891, 21.25ozs. (659gms.)’. A bachelor’s teaset typically comprises a teapot, milk jug and sugar bowl.

‘Bachelor’ teapots are simply smaller teapots which are intended for one person, regardless of their sex or marital status. The teapots are sometimes mistaken for being part of a child’s tea service. However, they are purposely small and were created long before the advent of tea bags to brew individual cups of tea using tea leaves and thus are far easier to clean out pesky leaves than larger, family-sized teapots. There was another bachelor’s teapot at the auction, lot 148, a nineteenth-century one made by Vasiliy Baladanov in Moscow in 1885, which failed to sell. This was not the case with the Fabergé teaset. Such was the desirability, it went for nearly double the auction estimate of £2500, selling for £4200. I envy the person who bought it. What a timeless classic it looks to the contemporary eye, and I also admire Dora and Richard for their foresight in acquiring it.

So what makes the House of Fabergé so exceptional? From its inception in 1842, it was a success, and seems never to have fallen from fashion. ‘Expensive things interest me little if the value is merely in so many diamonds and pearls,’ said virtuoso designer Carl Fabergé.[5] He had many specialised craftsmen working for him – with each an expert in a particular material – and had full control of the design and production process, ensuring consistency and high standards. That, and the avid patronage of Russian and European royalty, the influencers of their time, made Fabergé highly sought after. The art critic Sacheverell Sitwell referenced its history: ‘When you touch or hold a Fabergé object, you are in contact with something coming down to you, not only from the era of the Tsars, but an ancestry far more ancient. […] It is Russian, and could be nothing else.’[6]

On the night before Richard Hare died on 14 September 1966, many years after the couple had made such an impression at the Winter Palace antiques shop, they had been at Margot’s house. As they left, Richard purportedly turned to Dora and said what a very nice woman Mrs Tracey was and what a shame that they did not know her any better. The day after Richard died, Margot said yes to a request from the devastated widow to stay with her, Dora saying that she could not stay in Dorich House alone.[7] Perhaps the kindness of a person with a similar passion for Russian antiquities that Dora and Richard had shared was comforting during that dark time.

How the couple acquired the Fabergé bachelor’s teaset and the identity of the buyer at the silver auction are mysteries and, unless we hear otherwise, it truly is a lost Russian object, location unknown.

Louise Dear             

Published as part of the project The Squatter Years: Recovering Dorich House Museum’s Recent Past, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, January 2021.                                                     

[1] Margot Tracey (née Giraud, 1907–?) was part of the French community in pre-revolutionary Russia. She was the daughter of a wealthy French industrialist and was ten years old when the Bolsheviks arrested her parents and confiscated all their property after the Revolution in 1917. The French government obtained the release of her parents in 1921 and the family left the country. In London, Margot was co-partner of The Winter Palace gallery in Kensington Church Street, which specialised in the art and objects of Imperial Russia, along with Jan Bethge and Nicholas Lynn. Tracey has been described as ‘a former Russian aristocrat, fashion model and Portobello market trader’ (‘The Collection of the Late Jan Bethge’, Lyon & Turnball, 25 January 2017, https://www.lyonandturnbull.com/news/article/The-Collection-of-the-Late-Jan-Bethge/?i=325). She is the author of Red Rose (Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1978), an account of her experience of the Revolution and fleeing Moscow.

[2] Interview with Margot Tracey, September 1995 (Interviews file, Dorich House Museum Archive, DGH/9/1).

[3] Brenda Martin, email correspondence with the author, 30 October 2020.

[4] ‘The Genius of Carl Faberge’, episode two, BBC World News, 28 December 2018, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/n3ct58rc.

[5] Qtd in ‘Peter Carl Fabergé and the Fabergé firm’, The Royal Collection Trust, https://www.rct.uk/sites/default/files/Peter%20Carl%20Faberge%20and%20the%20Faberge%20Firm.pdf

[6] Sacheverell Sitwell, ‘Foreword’, inHenry Charles Bainbridge, Peter Carl Fabergé: Goldsmith and Jeweller to the Russian Imperial Court. His Life and Work (London: Batsford, 1949).

[7] Interview with Margot Tracey, September 1995.

Sign up to our newsletter