A scrap metal dealer who bought an ornament from a bric-a-brac market to be melted down for its gold discovered it is a £20 million Fabergé egg after finding a Telegraph article online.
The extraordinary find has been likened by the expert who verified it to “Indiana Jones being presented with the Lost Ark” – a trail that began in Tsarist Russia and ended in the kitchen of a house in the American Mid West overlooking a branch of Dunkin’ Donuts.
The Imperial Easter Egg was designed by Carl Fabergé for Tsar Alexander III in 1887 and seized by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution.
It eventually turned up on an antiques stall in the US a decade ago, its provenance unknown to the vendor.
It was spotted by a dealer who bought and sold gold for scrap value. Knowing nothing of the egg’s history, he purchased it for £8,000 based on its weight and estimated value of the diamonds and sapphires featured in the decoration.
He intended to sell it on to a buyer who would melt it down, turning a quick profit of a few hundred pounds. But prospective buyers thought he had over-estimated the price and turned him down.
The egg languished in his kitchen for years until one night in 2012, when he Googled “egg” and “Vacheron Constantin”, a name etched on the timepiece inside.
The result was a Telegraph article published a year earlier, featuring a picture of his egg and the title: “Is this £20 million nest-egg on your mantelpiece?” The dealer – who wishes to remain anonymous, given his newfound wealth – contacted the Fabergé expert named in the article, Kieran McCarthy of Mayfair jeweller Wartski.
Mr McCarthy said: “He saw the article and recognised his egg in the picture. He flew straight over to London – the first time he had ever been to Europe – and came to see us. He hadn’t slept for days.
“He brought pictures of the egg and I knew instantaneously that was it. I was flabbergasted – it was like being Indiana Jones and finding the Lost Ark.”
Mr McCarthy flew to the US to verify the discovery.
“It was a very modest home in the Mid West, next to a highway and a Dunkin’ Donuts. There was the egg, next to some cupcakes on the kitchen counter.
“I examined it and said, ‘You have an Imperial Fabergé Easter Egg.' And he practically fainted. He literally fell to the floor in astonishment.” The dealer etched Mr McCarthy's name and the date into the wooden bar stool on which Mr McCarthy sat to examine the egg, marking the day that his life changed forever.
Wartski bought the egg on behalf of a Fabergé collector.
The dealer is stunned by his newfound wealth and "petrified" of being publicly identified, Mr McCarthy said.
“He’s from another world entirely. It’s a world of diners and pick-up trucks, real blue-collar America, and he and his partner are still stunned by all this.
“When I saw them in January, they hadn’t moved out but they were going to, although I think it was just to a bigger house around the corner. They’ve also bought a new car.
“It’s the same as winning the EuroMillions, except better in a way because he invested some money in this piece and hung on to it because he was too stubborn to sell it for a loss.
“I have been around the most marvellous discoveries in the art world, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen one quite like this – finding this extraordinary treasure in the middle of nowhere.”
The egg has several scratches on it where the metal was tested for its gold content by prospective buyers.
“The scratches make it more valuable, not less,” said Mr McCarthy. “We thought about removing them, but in the end the new buyer thought they enhanced the piece because they are part of its history.”
The egg was one of 50 created by Fabergé for the Russian Royal family. Measuring 8.2cm high, it was given by Tsar Alexander III to the Tsarina for Easter 1887.
It was last seen in public in March 1902, as part of an exhibition of Imperial treasures in St Petersburg.
Seized by the Bolsheviks, it was last recorded in Moscow in 1922 when the Soviets decided to sell it as part of their ‘Treasures into Tractors’ policy.
In 2011, Fabergé researchers found the first proof that the egg survived into the middle of the 20th century: a picture in a 1964 catalogue for Parke Bernet, the New York auction house later acquired by Sotheby’s. It was described as a “Gold Watch in Egg-Form Case” and sold for £875 to a female buyer from the Deep South.
She died in the early 2000s, and her estate sold off. The egg, not believed to be of great value, found its way to the bric-a-brac market.
Mr McCarthy said: “This should give hope to every antiques enthusiast out there. There are great treasures still to be found.”
The current owner is lending the egg to Wartski for public display from April 14-17 at the firm’s headquarters in Grafton Street, Mayfair.