Rotten Egg

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Russia's last imperial family, the Romanovs, celebrated Easter with decorative eggs, the traditional symbol of Christ's Resurrection. They were not, however, the kind of gift a child might paint and put in a basket. Beginning in 1885, the Czars commissioned Russian Jeweler Carl Faberge to create a series of egg-shaped treasures. No two were alike, but most were covered with jewels and gold and could be opened to reveal a dazzling surprise, perhaps a miniature palace or a windup train. Before the dynasty was overthrown in 1917, Faberge produced between 54 and 57 of these Imperial eggs.

One of Faberge's rare masterpieces, or rather what looks like one, is now the subject of a bitter legal battle that has scandalized the art-sales world. The combatants are Eskandar Aryeh, an Iranian-born millionaire who has filed a $37 million suit, and Christie's, the renowned London-based auction house.

The story began in 1977. Aryeh, an avid collector of Russian artifacts who had emigrated from Iran to the U.S., owned some 100 of Faberge's plain enamel eggs, which were made for ordinary collectors and not monarchs. Hearing that an Imperial egg was being auctioned off by Christie's in Geneva, he asked his sister Shahnaz, who lived in Switzerland, to try to buy it. This particular egg was supposedly commissioned for the 300th anniversary of the Romanov dynasty in 1913 by Czarina Alexandra for her husband Nicholas II. It opens to reveal a tiny statue of Nicholas astride a horse.

After Shahnaz won the egg with a bid of $250,000, Aryeh flew to Geneva to pick up his purchase. He was disappointed with its appearance and refused to pay, fearing that it was a fake. Says Aryeh: "Faberge made very few Imperial eggs, and they are all masterpieces. The one I opened in Switzerland was junk." Christie's officials insisted the egg was genuine. After months of haggling, Christie's sued Aryeh. Finally, the auction house produced a letter from British Art Expert A. Kenneth Snowman, the world's leading authority on Faberge, who declared the egg "undoubtedly" an Imperial Faberge. Aryeh paid the $250,000, plus $200,000 in lawyer's fees, and took the egg.

Aryeh returned to his home in the U.S., a 31-room Georgian mansion in Kings Point, N.Y., where he lives with his wife and five children. Then, last June, he learned that Publisher Malcolm Forbes paid $1.76 million for a Faberge with a crowing rooster inside. The purchase gave Forbes eleven Imperial Faberges, making his the largest collection in the world--one ahead of the Armoury Museum in the Kremlin. Aryeh, hoping that his egg could fetch an equally royal bid, decided to put it on the block at Christie's in Manhattan.

Two weeks before the auction, Christie's New York president, Christopher Burge, told Aryeh that the house would not sell his egg. The reason was that Snowman now said it was not an Imperial egg but rather one of Faberge's pretty but less valuable baubles. Other experts noted that several awkward features, including a protruding hinge, indicated that the egg had been embellished by some jeweler other than Faberge. Aryeh then demanded the return of his original $250,000. Christie's refused, and two weeks ago he sued.

Aryeh has been caught in legal tangles before. In 1977 he ran up a $700,000 debt at the MGM Grand Hotel casino in Las Vegas and stopped payment on his checks after he returned to New York. MGM sued and won. In 1982 a New York court ordered him to make good on $183,000 worth of gambling debts he owed to the Aspinall's Club in London.

Aryeh's dispute with Christie's is not the company's first brouhaha. Chairman David Bathurst resigned from his post in July 1985 after admitting that he had reported the sale of three impressionist paintings at a 1981 auction when only one had been sold. He said he feared that the art market would become depressed if it were known that there were no buyers for the two unsold pieces. Christie's was fined $80,000 by New York City's Department of Consumer Affairs, and Bathurst lost his auctioneer's license for two years.

Christie's is obviously embarrassed about the Faberge fiasco, but company officials argue that the house was the victim of an error in judgment by an independent expert. Says Burge: "We are merely on the receiving end of these opinions. Kenneth Snowman is the leading authority on Faberge." Shrugs Snowman: "Everybody can change their minds, I suppose."