An Auckland man selling his mother's estate got the shock of his life when an unremarkable box turned out to be a Faberge piece formerly owned by a European prince.
The box was identified by experts at auction house Webb's as staff were pricing items from the estate. It had been destined for the Webb's weekly affordable sale of objects with little or no reserve price.
But Webb's jewellery specialist, Chris Devereux, discovered the Faberge marks on the box, which the seller had no idea was significant or of special value.
Devereux admits his heart skipped a beat when he realised what he was holding.
"Normally one finds there's some sort of family folklore surrounding precious objects.
"This particular piece there was no family tradition of `This is granny's special Faberge box', so my best guess is that it was purchased at some stage when neither the seller nor buyer knew its significance."
Devereux estimates the box will sell for as much as $20,000 when it goes up for auction on Wednesday.
While much of the box's history is unknown, the auction house has discovered it was once owned by a Bohemian prince.
"We just heard from an international Faberge expert who has located the original entry for the sale of the piece. It was sold on Christmas Eve in 1910 to Prince Kinsky. They were a very famous family, there were branches in Czechoslovakia and what was then Austro-Hungary, and all over the place."
After World War II the estates of one branch of the family were confiscated because of their pro-German allegiances.
Devereux says that could be how the box began its journey to New Zealand, but he says there are many ways it could have got here.
"You have to look at Europe, there were two vast disruptions, you've got millions of people displaced, you've got people who were hounded by political regimes, by nasty little people like Hitler and his cohorts, and you've got the Russian Revolution.
"People traded and sold things, or else were simply robbed of them, and the people who actually laid their hands on these things from time to time were not necessarily educated people. They just grabbed what sparkled and they may never have known. We just don't know."
It is not Devereux's first exciting discovery on behalf of a client. A few years ago he discovered some valuable sapphire jewellery in a box of costume trinkets.
"They were absolutely floored, it changed their lives. They'd retired, and, while they weren't poverty-stricken, certainly things were going to be tight. It just enabled them to have some of the luxuries we all hope for in our retirement."
Peter Carl Faberge was the foremost jeweller of the Russian empire, and is most famous for his fabulously jewelled eggs.
The box is made from panels of lapis lazuli framed in yellow gold, the lid is engraved crystal bordered by seed pearls and the thumb-piece is set with diamonds. In Cyrillic script it bears the marks for Faberge, the mark for workmaster Henrik Wigstrom, and a mark for St Petersburg 1908-1917.
- Sunday Star Times
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