top of page

Photograph courtesy of Sotheby's London.

A diminutive Fabergé guilloché enamel photograph frame by Workmaster Victor Aarne

12 November 2023

This charming Fabergé photograph frame - only 1⅝ inches (ca. 4.3cm) in height - is a rare example of less-than-perfect craftsmanship, contrary to the widely held belief that "you never see a dud piece of Fabergé". The engraved pattern on the metal plate under the vitreous enamel ought to be orientated towards the outside on all four sides of the frame. This has been done only in the lower & left hand panels, suggesting that this piece was engraved in haste. Or it may have been engraved by an apprentice, possibly without supervision. 

Scroll down to find out about the finer details.

Seemingly, there is evidence of restoration: the setting of the seed pearl in the top right-hand corner is different from the three others. Yes, these elements can become detached. They drop off, sometimes, it's normal wear & tear... It looks like it has been fabricated in a slightly different shade of gold compared to the confidently yellow gold of the three originals. Also, the green gold central stem of the floral swag is unattached to the knot of the rose gold ribbon bow above it. This is unlike most four-colour gold floral swags on frames by Victor Aarne, being miniature works of art in their own right. We can disregard these minor details of restoration to focus on the guilloché enamel panels.

F-BA-frame rectangle red-SL-2023 07 11-L05-02.jpg

Today, the benefits of high-resolution photography allow closer inspection of the finer details of pieces than at the time of production. A magnifying glass would have probably sufficed to reveal the incorrect alignment of the engraved scalloped lines, even on a piece as small as this one. The seed-pearls and floral swags hide the slightly untidy diagonal joints on the corners between the vertical and horizontal bands of guilloché enamel. 

F-BA-frame rectangle red-SL-2023 07 11-L05-04.jpg

The metal plate, before being enamelled in the kiln, has been engraved on a Straight-Line engine turning lathe, using a scalloped pattern bar to guide the cutting blade. The first and second lines from the inner border have been indexed to create a fish scale shape. Thereafter the engraved lines leave no gaps between them. The workpiece has been engraved on the left hand vertical side in precisely the same way as the right hand panel, thereby saving a little bit of calibration time required to rotate the workpiece by 180° on the chuck. This is not good enough!

The toupee bun feet in Louis XVI style are perfect, typical of the design handwriting of Victor Aarne's workshop. The plain reeded yellow 56 Zolotnik gold borders of the outer frame and inner bezel provide a harmonious contrast to the elaborate and dainty floral swags in four colour gold. 

F-BA-frame rectangle red-SL-2023 07 11-L05-06.jpg

The scrolling lyre-shaped strut is typical of these smaller Aarne frames, this time executed in 84 Zolotnik silver. The hinge is covered, to hide the joints, a pleasing detail. The mother-of-pearl rear cover may have been replaced, as these tend to be chipped, cracked or damaged in unrestored pieces, more often than not. 

F-BA-frame rectangle red-SL-2023 07 11-L05-03.jpg

The BA maker's mark and Fabergé in Cyrillic have been stamped too close to the border. Polishing during restoration may have rubbed the BA mark, making it partially illegible. 

F-BA-frame rectangle red-SL-2023 07 11-L05-05.jpg

Sotheby's London catalogue description for Lot 05, 11th July 2023, can be read here. It proposes a "highly comparative" frame in the Royal Collection, shown above. Is this piece highly comparative? Well no it isn't, at least to anybody with a pair of functioning eyeballs and a basic knowledge of Fabergé. First, the ribbon bow and floral swags are contained within the borders of the frame, a design detail that I am particularly fond of. Second, there are no toupee bun feet. Third, the frame in the Royal Collection is of a modified rectangular form with an upper triangular pediment. Fourth, the engine turning in the Royal Collection frame is of a different pattern and has no visible defects. Fifth, the outer borders are different. Sotheby's marketing sales blurb needs to be reigned in... Both frames share a similar design composition, with seed pearl corners and four colour gold floral swags, on red guilloché enamel. "Ça suffit", darling! 

If you have any comments or questions, feel free to drop me a line by email here!

- o0o -

P.S. a note on the photograph in the Royal Collection frame, depicting Elizabeth of Hesse-Darmstadt (1864-1918). She was named after Elizabeth of Hungary (1207-1231), a Catholic saint of her own family. Her mother died when she was a child, and she came to England to live under the protection of her grandmother, Queen Victoria. While her childhood may have been decidedly Lutheran, the religious culture of her adolescence was distinctively Anglican. In 1884 Elizabeth married Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, the fifth son of Tsar Alexander II of Russia. After the assassination of her husband in 1905, she founded the Community of Martha and Mary, of which  she was abbess. She built a Russian Orthodox Church on Mount Athos and served as a nurse during the First World War. She was murdered by the Bolsheviks in a mineshaft near Alapaevsk, not far from Yekaterinburg, on 18th July 1918.  The day after the Romanov family were slaughtered in the basement of the ominously named House of Special Purpose, on 17th July 1918. Oh the karma!

In 1984, Princess Elizabeth was recognised as a saint - a Holy Martyr - by the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, then by the Moscow Patriarchate in 1992. A sculpture commemorating her life can be seen above the West Door of Westminster Abbey in London, fourth from the left, alongside nine other Holy Martyrs of the 20th Century. The Martyrs, sculpted by John Roberts, were unveiled in 1998. They are a triumph... Go and see them. 

Grand Duchess Elizabeth.jpg
bottom of page