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Brooches for Pollie: The Tsarina’s gifts to her friend

An exquisite gold, sapphire and diamond brooch crafted in St Petersburg was consigned to auction in October 2018. I had first encountered it as a personal gift from Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna (1872-1918) to the friend of her youth, Marion Louisa ‘Pollie’ Delmé-Radcliffe, Baroness Ungern-Sternberg whose touching connection I explored in a short article for my Royal Central blog back in September 2018. Unknown to me, it was sold a month afterwards in an auction at Sotheby’s New York, but nor was it the only brooch of Pollie’s to have been sold again. I knew it from an earlier auction Russian Art at Christie’s London in 2010.

The Tsarina’s habit was to send personal gifts to her close friends, sometimes made with her own hand, but she often also sent pieces of jewellery. She enjoyed filling her private rooms with beautiful objects which either she had chosen or were given as gifts. Often the gifts were rich in personal meaning, such as a paper-knife by Faberge to her former governess, Margaret Hardcastle Jackson, in 1900, who could presumably use it to open her letters. According to the Tsarina’s biographer, Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden, who knew her: ‘the Empress liked to give practical presents….Her family and old friends generally got one gift made by herself, in addition to the others...’ (cit., Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden, Before the Storm, 267).

The Baroness recalled in her biography that the Tsarina loved such things as: ‘Pale mauve enamels… transparent green nephrite cups, crystal inlaid with amethysts, bookmarks and small objects decorated with edelweiss in baroque pearls…‘ (cit., Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden, The Life and Tragedy of Alexandra Feodorovna, 52).

The Baroness remembered her making a present especially for Pollie: ‘That year Her Majesty was making an intricate bed-jacket for her English-born friend, Baroness Polly Ungern, and she sat up sometimes till midnight, stitching for all she was worth as busily as any shop-girl…’ (cit., Ibid, 268). For the Tsarina, her friendships were of huge emotional importance. I managed to locate a rare letter from Alexandra when Princess Alix of Hesse to Pollie, written in 1894 and reproduced in a biography of Alix’s niece, Queen Louise of Sweden.  I reproduced this ‘lost’ letter in the same blog, Ever your devoted friend: Alix and Pollie.

Alexandra gave Pollie a brooch by tradition, which was featured in sale 7905, ‘Russian Art’ at Christie’s, 29 November 2010. It was a jewelled and gold-mounted guilloche enamel brooch, crafted by Faberge, with diamond-set lily-of-the-valley – by tradition, a favourite flower of the Tsarina -, diamond studded bow and gold chain. Alexandra wrote to Pollie from Peterhof on 16/28 June 1898: ‘I must send you a few lines to tell you how much my thoughts and prayers will surround you next month. God bless & protect you, Darling, & may you not suffer too much-tho one willingly suffers, so as to have the intense joy of holding one’s own precious Baby in one’s arms. I have worked a quilt for you to cover the tiny little Being with-the brooch is for you as a wee remembrance of a dear friend…’ (Quoted in Lot 220 information for Russian Art, 29 November 2010, Christie’s).

The working of a quilt was typical; a ‘Russian smock’ was worked by the Tsarina for her godson, Alexander v. Pfuhlstein, the son of her close friend, Magarete (‘Gretchen’) von Fabrice. Buxhoeveden tells us that the Tsarina particularly loved flowers and that ‘her rooms were always a mass of white lilac and every kind of beautiful orchid…’ (cit., Buxhoeveden, The Life and Tragedy, 52). The lily-of-the-valley diamond setting by Faberge for Pollie’s brooch on the birth of her first child might also recall to us Faberge’s famous ‘Lilies of the Valley’ jewelled egg, supervised by his workmaster Michael Perchin.

An interesting coincidence considering the brooch and the birth of Pollie’s child in 1898, is that the ‘Lilies of the Valley’ imperial egg was presented to Alexandra by her husband, Tsar Nicholas II for Easter 1898.

I want to suggest my own theory that the ‘Lilies of the Valley’ egg that Alexandra received for Easter 1898 may – perhaps even only obliquely – provided loose inspiration for the design of the brooch by Faberge, which she gave to Pollie. The egg is covered in pearls on rose pink enamel with rose-cut diamond dewdrops and gold-stemmed lilies. By way of a gold-mounted pearl button – and the Tsarina’s love of pearls was legendary – the surprise opens to reveal three portraits, one of the Tsar in uniform and the other two of their two daughters, Grand Duchesses Olga and Tatiana. The date 5 April 1898 is engraved on the back of these enchanting miniatures by Johannes Zehngraf. Pollie’s brooch was enamelled in pink with a diamond-set sprig of the lily-of-the-valley. If my theory is correct, it could have been produced sometime between Easter and 16/28 June 1898, so that the Tsarina could write to Pollie that she was sending it in time for the birth of her baby.

Still, in its lush original silk and velvet lined wood case stamped ‘Faberge St Petersburg Moscow’ beneath the imperial warrant marked on the pin clasp, Pollie’s Faberge brooch had a pre-auction estimate of GBP £10,000 – GBP £15,000 and realised the massive sale of GBP £32,450 when it sold as Lot 220 in Russian Art at Christie’s London in 2010.

Two further lots were included in the Russian Art sale of 29 November 2010, both brooches from the same private collection in the USA, by descent of Pollie’s family to their owner. The first was made by the St. Petersburg firm Koechli circa 1900, in the form of a flower on a twisted stem with a chain and pin, whose petals were set with cabochon sapphires and its leaves set with diamonds. As Lot 221, its estimate was GBP £5,000 – GBP £7,000, although its price realised was GBP £15,000. Bearing the mark of Friedrich Koechli (1899-1904), it was also in its original silk and velvet lined box stamped in Russian ‘Fried. Koechli St Petersburg’ beneath the imperial warrant, marked on the pin, pin guard and reverse. Researching further, I discovered it was sold again at Sotheby’s New York, at their auction Fine Jewels, 7 December 2017, as Lot ‘371A‘. It was then estimated at 6,000 – 8,000 USD and sold for 7,500 USD.

The Koechli connection is important in Alix’s personal gifts of jewellery. She gave a red-gold bracelet with two diamonds and three sapphire cabochons by Koechli to her close friend Margarethe ‘Gretchen’ von Fabrice, whose clasp is engraved with the name of the Tsarina: ‘Alix‘, St Petersburg, pre-1899. Koechli specialised in jewellery with sapphire cabochons and diamonds. (Katalog Faberge, Munich 1987 Nr. 567-71, 573). Other items that Gretchen owned by Koechli included a gold brooch with sapphires and diamonds in art nouveau style and a diamond, ruby and enamel brooch, Koechli, pre-1890, also in its original box.

The latter, Lot 222, was estimated at GBP £5,000 – GBP £7,000 and reached a price of £5,250 at auction when it was sold by Christie’s London 7905 sale of Russian Art. It had also been listed as the property of a private collection in the USA, by descent through the family to its then present owner. A magnificent jewelled gold brooch with rose-cut diamonds and its petals set with round sapphires, it bears the maker’s mark ‘AK’, St Petersburg, ca 1890.

It is this same flower-pin brooch which was sold eight years later at Sotheby’s New York on 17 October 2018, as part of another auction entitled ‘Fine Jewels’. Lot 105 was listed as property from the William A. Richardson collection. Its initial estimate was 3,500-4,500 USD, but finally realised a total of £6,250 USD. Its provenance was described by Sotheby’s New York as: ‘Given by Empress Alexandra Feodorovna to Marion Louisa ‘Pollie’ Delme-Radcliffe Baroness Ungern-Sternberg. Then by descent. Christie’s London, Russian Art, November 29, 2010, lot 222′. 

So poignantly, long-ago gifts from the Tsarina continue to live on, a long way from imperial Russia. It is an expression – in jewels – of a loving and enduring friendship.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019
About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian, writer and researcher, specializing in Queen Victoria's family and Russian royalty. An independent scholar of royal studies, she has studied historic British and European royalty for nearly twenty years, speaking on the subject for both TV and radio, including the BBC.