December 10, 2013 / 7:08 PM / in 4 years

Swiss auction house hits record in Tsarist Russian sale

GENEVA (Reuters) - A Geneva auction firm specializing in the surging market for pre-1917 Russian cultural objects, paintings and documents said on Tuesday its latest sale had fetched a house record of 3.8 million Swiss francs ($4.25 million).

Top objects auctioned among fierce bidding by buyers from Russia, Europe and the United States included a pair of vases given as a Christmas present in 1849 by Tsar Nicholas I, imperial family letters, and an enameled tobacco box.

"The success of this sale is a demonstration of the huge interest in Russian items from before the Bolshevik Revolution," said Bernard Piguet, director of the Hotel de Ventes auction house since 2005.

Over that time, he has turned the once-ailing business into a major European outlet for Russian objects, especially items closely linked to the Romanov dynasty, which was overthrown in 1917, after which the tsar and his family were killed.

But previous Russian sales had not come close to the total realized at the latest auction, late on Monday night.

The two 66-cm-(26-inch)-high porcelain and bronze vases with reproductions of Dutch paintings on either side, authenticated by St Peterburg's Hermitage Museum, sold for 1.5 million Swiss francs ($1.7 million) each. That was three to five times more than the pre-sale estimate.

Piguet said they had been manufactured in the then-Russian capital's Imperial Workshops as a gift for the Tsar's sister-in-law, Grand Duchess Yelena Pavlovna, and for the past 50 years had been owned by a Swiss collector.

The 230 letters, many recounting innocuous family news but some revealing secrets of state and imperial love affairs, were sold in separate lots for a total of 743,000 Swiss francs ($830,000).

Brought back from Germany after World War Two by a U.S. army captain, the letters remained in a box in the attic of his Massachusetts home until long after his death in 1985, and were only identified in the late 1990s.

They had almost all been written to Nicholas I's sister Olga, who married a prince of the region of Baden in southern Germany and died in 1892.

Experts believe they were sold when Germany became a republic after 1918, and were picked up cheaply in 1945 by the U.S. officer, whose family want their name kept secret.

"A mysterious history always attracts more interest in any object up for auction," said Piguet's wife Claire, who read most of the letters - the vast majority in French - to prepare the sale catalogue. "And there is a mystery around these."

The price they fetched, mainly from one anonymous bidder, was 10 times more than the estimate.

The gold, enamel and diamond tobacco box was another present - from Tsar Alexander I to a Greek prince in 1803. The box had been in the same family since then and sold for 522,000 Swiss francs ($586,000), five times over the estimate.

Editing by Mark Heinrich

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