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Memphis Flyer A Russian Invasion

"Jewels of the Romanovs" arrives in Memphis.

By James Busbee

NOVEMBER 24, 1997:  On November 23rd, the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art will unveil “Jewels of the Romanovs: Treasures of the Russian Imperial Court.” The exhibit, one of the most notable exhibitions ever to pass this way, features priceless jewels and costumes from centuries of Russian rulers. It’s a fascinating look at how the beauty of imperial regalia endures long after rulers and regimes pass into history.

The exhibit commemorates the 125th anniversary of a most notable Russian-American event. In 1872, at the behest of President Ulysses S. Grant, the Russian Grand Duke Alexis visited the United States, traveling to 20 cities over three months. He arrived in Memphis on February 3, 1872, toured the city, and stayed at The Peabody.

“The American Russian Cultural Cooperation Foundation [ARCCF] sent faxes to all of the cities the Grand Duke toured, asking if they wanted to host the exhibition. We were the first to respond,” says Caroline von Kessler, deputy director of public relations at Brooks. Sponsored by the ARCCF and the Russian Organizing Committee, the jewels have visited Washington, Houston, and San Diego, and Memphis is expected to be the final stop on their tour of America.

Many of the jewels are centuries-old relics of times in Russia as opulent as they were tragic. Even as the Russian people suffered under oppressive empires, their leaders indulged themselves with ever-greater extravagances of palaces and jewelry.

In 1719, Peter the Great established what is now the State Diamond Fund of the Russian Federation, to house a collection of jewels which belong only to the state of Russia. Peter declared that no pieces could be removed or sold, and each successive emperor or empress contributed pieces to the fund. For centuries, the collection resided in a secure room in St. Petersburg’s magnificent Winter Palace.

In 1914, with German invasion of Russia a distinct possibility during World War I, the entire collection was sent to Moscow, where it was hidden in vaults beneath the Kremlin. However, with the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the assassination of Tsar Nicholas and his family the next year, the jewels were briefly forgotten. In 1926 the vaults were found, and their contents were cataloged and photographed in their entirety. Many of the pieces were sold at Christie’s auction house in London in 1927. Investors from all over the world purchased the jewels, and many of the relics’ locations are now unknown.

But even a portion of a priceless collection is still invaluable. Since the fall of communism, many of the pieces have been on permanent display at the Kremlin Armory Museum. Their current tour, which began in 1996, marks the first – and probably only – time they leave Russia’s borders. Minor disputes between Russian and American officials earlier this year over security and financial details did little to dampen the enthusiasm of crowds, which have turned out in impressive numbers at every stop of the tour.

The breadth and eminence of the Diamond Fund is matched only by the jewel collections of the British monarchy and the Shah of Iran. Some of the most famous pieces include a stick pin featuring a 7.6-carat blue diamond believed to have been cut from the famed Hope Diamond. A bracelet created in 1825 to commemorate Alexander I has a 27-carat, table-cut diamond (the largest in the world) set atop a miniature portrait of Alexander painted on ivory. Perhaps the most impressive piece of the collection is a sapphire brooch dating to 1862. The 260-carat sapphire, about the size of a doorknob, sits among 57 carats of diamonds.

“It’s the biggest show we’ve ever had, and we expect a minimum of 50,000 people to visit,” von Kessler says. “We have over 300 volunteers; we’ll be open seven days a week with extended hours. Every aspect of the museum has had to shift to accommodate the jewels.” The museum’s security detail has also been enlarged for the exhibit.

“This is a rare opportunity,” says von Kessler. “The jewels have been hidden under the Kremlin since the Bolshevik Revolution, and this is the first time they’ve ever left Russia. You’re never going to get to see these jewels again.”

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