Princess Vera Konstantinovna of Russia had only thirty minutes to pack her things and leave the castle of Altenburg in Germany where she had lived since 1938. The Soviet forces could arrive at any moment. If she were captured, there was no guarantee of the Princess’s personal safety. After all, the Soviet soldiers belonged to the regime that had murdered three of her older brothers in July of 1918, and sixteen other members of the former Imperial family.
It was the end of May, 1945. A group of United States Army officers had come to the castle to deliver the bad news to its two remaining occupants, the exiled Princess Vera and her cousin, Prince Ernst-Friedrich von Saxe-Altenburg. At the Potsdam Conference, the American president Harry S. Truman, the British prime minister Winston Churchill, and the Soviet premier Joseph Stalin had decided that much of the former German Reich was to be reapportioned. In particular, the former Duchy of Saxe-Altenburg was to fall under the sphere of Soviet influence.
The U.S. Army forces announced that they were leaving Altenburg and would be replaced by the Soviet Army on 1 July 1945. The Americans told Princess Vera and Prince Ernst-Friedrich that they had half an hour to gather their belongings and leave. Realizing that she must once again flee from the Soviets, Princess Vera quickly pulled together the group of objects that she and her mother, Grand Duchess Elizaveta Mavrikievna, had managed to keep since leaving Russia in 1918.
Forsaking Altenburg, Princess Vera and her cousin traveled on foot with their hastily packed belongings, covering 150 miles in twelve days and staying just ahead of the advancing Soviet forces. It must have been with considerable relief that she arrived in Hamburg with her belongings, which presumably included a masterpiece created by the firm of Fabergé: a silver presentation frame containing portraits of her father, her siblings, and her former homes in Russia. The frame was now a memorial to everything she had lost. But it had been ordered in a very different time and place.
Celebrating 25 Years of Marriage
In April of 1909, Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich of Russia1 and his wife, Grand Duchess Elizaveta Mavrikievna2, celebrated their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. The Romanov family traditionally marked such occasions with notable exchanges of gifts, and this occasion was no exception. Grand Duke Konstantin dedicated his diary entry for the fifteenth of April (Old Style) to a description of the festivities surrounding the anniversary, which began in the morning at the Pavlovsk Palace, and ended in St. Petersburg:
Gavrilushka3 and Tatiana4 ordered the arrangement of garlands of fresh flowers fourteen yards in length above the curtains in our bedroom. My gardener transformed my wife’s rooms into whole flower beds, filled with beauty and fragrance… At 9 a.m. the whole family gathered for coffee in the small dining room downstairs. There were many flowers and gifts. At noon, we went up into the [state] halls. They were already filled with well-wishers… In the church vestibule5, we waited for the guests from St. Petersburg and Tsarskoye Selo. Baron Fredericks and his wife were invited from the great court, Count Benckendorff and his wife, the Stats-dama Naryshkina6; of course, all our gentlemen and ladies, as well as people who participated in our wedding celebrations twenty-five years ago, pages who were then serving, and in general those who are close to us… We had luncheon at seven round tables in the Greek Hall and the two adjacent ones7.
The family left for St. Petersburg to pay their respects to Grand Duke Konstantin’s mother, the Grand Duchess Alexandra Iosifovna, in the early afternoon. Following their visit to the Grand Duchess, they went on to the Marble Palace, their home in Petersburg, for the evening festivities:
At about five o’clock, the congratulatory reception began: first, downstairs, in our dining room, Kireev8 made a speech on behalf of our household gentlemen and ladies gatheredthere. They gave us an excellent decoration for the table: a silver-mounted nephrite plateau in the style of Louis XV with two swans and a silver-mounted nephrite vase at the center. Upstairs, in the White Hall, all the employees of the Marble and Strelna Palaces were gathered. There were many of them. They also brought gifts: icons, silver articles, flowers. From there they went to the rooms with windows opening onto the Neva River… We had expected some of our friends to be at the reception, but we didn’t expect the whole town to be there. We were touched and moved to tears.9
Commissioning a Fabergé Masterpiece
Though he did not mention it in his diary, Grand Duke Konstantin had also commissioned the firm of Fabergé to create a special gift for his wife: a silver presentation frame in the Empire style. The frame incorporated hand-tinted photographs of their children and their four residences, set within an architectural portico.
Made in the silver workshop of Finnish-born workmaster Hjalmar Armfelt, the pediment centers a photograph of the Grand Duke in uniform flanked by scrolling acanthus leaves which embrace the anniversary years of “1884” and “1909.” Beneath the pediment, ribbon-tied wreaths of laurel support the wedding date “15 April.” The pediment rests on two pilasters with Grecian ornament above bases with sphinxes10, and the whole contains, from left to right, round hand-tinted albumen photographic prints of Prince Ioann Konstantinovich (1886-1918), Prince Gavril Konstantinovich (1887-1955), Princess Tatiana Konstantinovna (1890-1979), Prince Konstantin Konstantinovich (the Younger, 1891-1918), Prince Oleg Konstantinovich (1892-1914), Prince Igor Konstantinovich (1894-1918), Prince Georgii Konstantinovich (1903-1938), Princess Natalia Konstantinovna (d. 1905)11, and Princess Vera (1906-2001). Princess Natalia, who had died in infancy, was represented only by the Cyrillic initial ‘N’ – no photographs had ever been taken of the infant. Set within the composition of portraits are images of the four main residences of the family: Pavlovsk Palace, the Marble Palace, the Strelna Palace, and the Moscow estate of Ostashevo12, also hand-tinted.
Upheaval: War and Revolution
After the death of Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich in 1915, the palace of Pavlovsk passed to his son, Prince Ioann Konstantinovich and his wife, Princess Helene13. Grand Duchess Elizaveta Mavriekivna and her youngest children, Prince Georgii and Princess Vera, moved to the Marble Palace in St. Petersburg until the violent events of February 1917. They returned to Pavlovsk for safety, but the October Bolshevik Revolution forced them to leave Russia forever in October of 1918. It was almost impossible to remove valuable objects in precious metals from Russia, and so it is possible that Grand Duchess Elizaveta and her family used Swedish diplomatic channels to get the frame out of the country. In her memoirs, Princess Vera noted that the officials even examined the frames of her spectacles looking for precious metal.14 By the time they had resettled in Germany in 1922, however, it is likely that the frame was with them.
Preserving Family Heirlooms
After the Second World War, Princess Vera brought the frame and a variety of other important family portraits and belongings out of Germany, taking them with her to the United States in 1951.16 The collection stayed with her in New York for many years as important reminders of the family members that she had lost, and the Russia she had left behind.
By 1983, however, the princess began to think of her own mortality and of a secure future for these objects that she had so carefully protected. She was the only remaining person pictured in the frame who was still alive. All her siblings were deceased, and any thought that she might return to Russia had long since vanished. She wrote with an air of brisk practicality to Archbishop Laurus, the Abbot of Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, New York, where the Russian History Museum was nearing the date of its official opening:
Your Eminence, Most Reverend Archbishop,
Give me your blessing!
I am sending you a few of my things for the museum: portraits and photographs. I am very glad to let you have them, even though it will feel empty here without them, but neither I nor my nephew [Teimuraz] Bagration-Moukhransky17 have an heir…18
The frame and other objects donated by Princess Vera arrived at the museum later that month and were received by the Archbishop, who replied:
Most deeply esteemed Vera Konstantinova!
…I also wish to express our gratitude for the items donated by you to our museum – the portraits, photographs, etc. which were conveyed by Pavel Andreevich. May the Lordpreserve you! We hope to have everything ready by the seminary commencement date to celebrate the official opening of our museum…19
A New Home at the Russian History Museum
The Museum opened in 1984, with the Konstantinovichi Fabergé frame in pride of place. Princess Vera attended the opening ceremony as a guest of honor, and her signature is the first in the Museum’s guest book.
The Faberge presentation frame remains a cornerstone of the Russian History Museum’s collection. Like many pieces at the Museum, it bears multiple interpretations. It fulfills its original purpose in memorializing the Konstantinovichi branch of the Romanov family at what may have been the apex of their happiness in 1909. Furthermore, its subsequent history of flight and exile is shared by most of the objects in our collection, which were rescued from destruction and preserved by members of the Russian diaspora in emigration.
The frame is also an important work by the house of Fabergé, which requires its own special type of research. As is the case with many objects produced by the Fabergé firm, documentation for this piece is currently unavailable to scholars, and may be lost. The records for purchases by Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich have not yet been located, and we are uncertain if they survive at all. The frame carries no inventory number, reinforcing the idea that the piece was a special commission, rather than a stock item that had been personalized.
Both the St. Petersburg and Moscow branches of the Fabergé firm did a brisk business in silver articles for presentation, including frames. A comparable large-format presentation frame made to contain sixty-four photographs was ordered as a gift for Count Illarion Vorontsov-Dashkov by his family. Today it is in the collection of the State Historical Museum in Moscow.20 The survival of photographic presentation pieces of the size and caliber of the Vorontsov-Dashkov and Konstantinovich frames is relatively rare, which makes the latter all the more notable.
On Loan: Return to Pavlovsk and US Exhibitions
Despite its importance, the existence of the frame was relatively little known until it was loaned to a special exhibition at Pavlovsk Palace in 2007 in honor of what would have been Princess Vera’s 100th birthday. The presentation frame temporarily returned to the palace for what may have been the first time since 1918.
Upon its return to the US, the frame was displayed in several exhibitions at American museum. It was loaned to the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis for two special exhibitions: The Romanovs: Legacy of an Empire Lost in 2013, and Unknown Fabergé: New Finds and Re-Discoveries in 2016. The artifact was again loaned to the Hillwood Museum for the 2018 exhibition Fabergé Discovered, where it was displayed alongside Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich and Grand Duchess Elizaveta Mavrikievna’s twenty-fifth anniversary tea and coffee service by Fabergé from Hillwood’s collection. In advance of the loan to Hillwood, the frame underwent cleaning and conservation.
The frame had some conservation issues which needed to be addressed. For example, for many years it had been assumed that the frame was gilded silver due to its yellowish color. However, it was revealed during conservation treatment that the entire frame was, in fact, thickly coated with nicotine from decades of exposure to cigarette smoke. Like many of her Romanov relatives, Princess Vera was a heavy smoker.
The silver frame before and after conservation. Severe oxidation in several areas of the frame was carefully removed as a part of the conservation treatment.
Extensive handling and overzealous polishing by unskilled persons had left scratches on the backplate, though the frame was in stable condition considering its age and extensive handling. During conservation, the entire frame was disassembled, and each and every piece subjected to a light conservation cleaning treatment which removed tarnish, stains, and the nicotine that covered the entire frame. The photographs were cleaned and placed on acid-free backing to prevent further oxidation.
Today, the piece, a highlight of our collection, divulges to its viewers a great deal about imperial celebrations, court life, revolution and exile, and the work of the Russian diaspora to preserve and interpret imperial culture.
1. Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich Romanov (1858-1915), grandson of Tsar Nicholas I, a poet known to his literary audience as “K.R.”
2. Grand Duchess Elizaveta Mavriekievna (1865-1927) née princess Elisabeth of Saxe-Altenburg.
3. Prince Gavriil Konstantinovich of Russia (1887-1955), second son of the Grand Duke.
4. Princess Tatiana Konstantinovna of Russia (1890-1979), eldest daughter of the Grand Duke.
5. The Pavlovsk Palace Chapel of St. Paul was designed by Vincenzo Brenna and built in 1799 in the neoclassical style, with a gallery in which the Imperial family would stand while attending services. Beyond the entrance to that gallery lies the “Church Vestibule” or “Church Gallery.” Conceived by Brenna as a hall of antiquities housing ancient Roman statues and urns, it is lavishly ornamented with stuccowork and fresco decoration. It is likely that the Imperial couple received their guests in the vestibule before all of them attended a moleben, or service of thanksgiving in honor of the anniversary.
6. Fredericks, Benckendorff, and Naryshkina were among the most important courtiers in the reigns of Alexander II, Alexander III, and Nicholas II, occupying prestigious and powerful positions in service to the Imperial House.
7. The “Greek Hall” and “the two adjacent ones” (the Hall of War, and the Hall of Peace) formed an axis in the parade rooms for entertaining at Pavlovsk Palace.
8. Aleksandr Alekseevich Kireev (1833-1910) was an important figure in pre revolutionary Russia, and one of the great friends remaining of Grand Duke Konstantine’s father, Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolaevich. At the personal request of Nicholas I, Kireev and his brother Nicholas were admitted to the Corps of Pages, and after their graduation in 1853, were admitted to the Life Guards Horse Regiment. A veteran of the Crimean war, he was made Adjutant to the Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolaevich, and lived near Pavlovsk.
9. Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich, diary entry for 15 April 1909. Retrieved from https://prozhito.org.
10. Similar arrangements of ornament may be noted in Percier & Fontaine, Receuil de Décorations Intérieurs etc. Paris: 1801.
11. Princess Natalia Konstantinovna of Russia was born in 1905 and died at the age of two months. There were no photographs ever taken of the infant, and so the princess was discreetly represented on the frame by the initial “N” in Cyrillic.
12. The Konstantinovichi branch of the Imperial family had four main residences. The Palace of Pavlovsk (near Tsarskoe Selo), had been left by Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna (the widow of Paul I) to her younger son, Grand Duke Michael Pavlovich. After Michael’s death, it went to the second son of Nicholas I, Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolayevich, and then passed to his widow and their eldest son, Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich. The family also held the magnificent Strelna Palace on the Gulf of Finland (near Peterhof). In 1797, Strelna was granted to Grand Duke Konstantin Pavlovich (second son of Paul I). After Konstantin’s death, the palace passed to his nephew, and the Konstantinovichi branch of the Romanov dynasty retained its ownership until the Revolution. In St. Petersburg, the family lived at the Marble Palace on the Palace Embankment. It had been built as a gift by Catherine the Great to Prince Orlov, but the palace reverted to the crown, then was presented to Grand Duke Constantine Pavlovich and passed to his heirs, the Konstantinovichi. The Moscow estate of Ostashevo, a favored residence, was purchased by Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich in 1903 as a quiet country place where the family could relax and get away from the court.
13. Born H.R.H. Princess Helene of Serbia (1884-1962), the couple married in 1911.
14. Vera Konstantinovna, Autobiographical article, Kadetskaya pereklichka, No. 3, New York, 1972.
15. Three of princess Vera Konstantinovna’s brothers, the princes Ioann, Konstantin and Igor, had been murdered by the Bolsheviks at Alapaevsk on 18 July 1918.
16. The frame appears on an inventory, now held in the collections at the Hoover Institute and Library, listing the objects shipped to the United States by Princess Vera from Germany in 1951.
17. Prince Teymouraz Konstantinovich Bagration-Moukhransky (1912-1992), son of Princess Tatiana Konstantinovna and her first husband, Prince Konstantin Aleksandrovich Bagration-Moukhransky.
18. Letter to Archbishop Laurus from Princess Vera, 16 December 1983, Russian History Museum Archives.
19. Letter to Princess Vera from Archibishop Laurus, 2 January, 1984, Russian History Museum Archives.