Early one January morning, Alexander Ozerovsky drew on his brown suede gloves as he stood near a crowded bus stop. He stared up the stretch of Fifth Avenue north of Ninety-sixth Street and paid no attention to the other New Yorkers who looked at him with interest as they waited for their bus. He stood with them, and yet apart from them at the curb: aloof and impeccably dressed.
Though Sasha (as everyone called him in the Russian manner) was not unusually handsome, he had a physical presence that attracted attention. His clear grey eyes, aquiline features, and perfect posture (the result of years of childhood riding lessons) suggested he was one of New York's elite.
The trees in Central Park had turned brown early that fall, yet some leaves still clung tenaciously to the icy branches. Buses and cars streamed down the avenue, narrowly missing the lake of slush that separated the curb from the middle of the street. Mindful of a fast-approaching car, Sasha stepped back in time to avoid being splashed. The others were not so lucky. Clutching their newspapers and coffee, they jumped back too late, cursing and wet.
As the others grumbled, Sasha continued to look up the avenue, hoping to catch a taxi with its light on. If one came, he would take it, but he would certainly rather walk than ride a crowded bus with damp and unhappy people. He glanced over toward the park again and noticed a homeless man leaning up against a wall. He wore a large tinfoil crown and had a sign that read: "Deposed. Will reign for food." This city is insane, Sasha thought, and emptying his pockets, he walked over to the man and dropped the last of his change into a can placed on the sidewalk.
Checking the rose-gold tank watch that had been a twenty-first birthday present from his grandparents, Sasha realized he was running late. He gave up all hope of finding a cab this grey morning and began to walk. With the long stride that his friends often complained about, he began the mile-long trek to his office, leaving the soaked commuters and the deposed monarch behind.
B B B
Upper Fifth Avenue was familiar to Sasha. He had lived in New York all his life, and his current apartment on East Ninety-seventh Street was only six blocks from the house where he had lived as a child before his mother's death. This morning, however, the walk down Fifth Avenue was a trial. Looking at the buildings he passed, all Sasha could see were the homes of people he could not convince to consign objects for sale at Leighton's Fine Art Auctioneers.
Our sale isn't so bad, Sasha reassured himself as he walked. We have the Fabergé silver tea service and table with silver fittings, which belonged to Grand Duchess Marie, and the silver-gilt fish service. We have the paintings by Serov and Levitan, but we need something else. Something to compete with that damned necklace at Christie's.
Sasha glanced up at the buildings as he passed. 1003 Fifth, he thought. The Travises have that Fabergé salmon pink enameled clock in the form of an egg, but they won't sell. What did Mr. Travis say? He was "waiting for the market to stabilize?" Nonsense. His wife wants to join the board of the Metropolitan Opera, and everyone on that board is a Sotheby's client. She's probably dangling the clock in front of Sotheby's to wriggle her way into the golden horseshoe.
980 Fifth. Not much better there. Madame Joubert kept teasing him with her necklace of miniature Fabergé eggs, but the price she was asking was too high for Sasha -- it involved a weekend he would have to spend alone with her at her villa on the Riviera.
Sasha didn't even bother to look up at 925. Mrs. Lloyd Winthrop had a Fabergé silver service made for Nicholas II's sister Xenia, but every year she decided at the last minute not to sell, wasting everyone's time.
If only he could find something better than that diamond necklace at Christie's -- the necklace that everyone said had belonged to the last Empress of Russia, Alexandra. The press had been fascinated by the enormous glittering stones since it had been announced for sale by Christie's. So fascinated, that it was impossible for Sotheby's or Leighton's to get any attention for their own pieces. It didn't seem to bother anyone in the press that Christie's couldn't actually prove the provenance of the necklace, at this point. It didn't matter. The tragic ghost of Empress Alexandra circled the piece anyway, wringing her imperial hands. The only people who might have any information about the necklace were the Romanov family themselves, and they remained elegantly and conspicuously silent on the entire matter.
For the last seven years Sasha had worked for Leighton's -- New York's premier small auction house -- in the Russian Works of Art department. Despite his youth, he was an acknowledged specialist in the icons, silver, porcelain, jewelry, and ephemera of the Russian Empire. It was, however, his expertise in the works of the imperial court jeweler Karl Fabergé that brought him the respect he craved from his colleagues, and earned his department the millions of dollars it needed every season to stay open.
Sasha looked up at the limestone curtain of buildings along Fifth Avenue. He knew and was related to many of the people who lived behind those windows, but this season his connections had come to nothing. Despite his blood relation to half the aristocratic families of Europe and the few remaining families of old New York, Sasha was failing Leighton's. For the first time, he couldn't bring in anything to compete with Christie's.
From where he stood, Sasha could see a familiar building ten blocks away. The tall, solid 1920s tower known as 839 Fifth stood as it had since he was a child, filled with socialites, philanthropists, and a smattering of the very rich who had popped up like mushrooms in the New York of the 1980s.
Before 839 was built, on its site had stood the last mansion of the Mrs. Astor. The newest of New Yorkers didn't realize they were living at Mrs. Astor's old address, but Sasha's grandparents certainly did when they were accepted into the building in 1937, and Sasha and his father knew it when they took over the apartment after his mother's death and his grandparents decided to move to Greenwich. Sasha wondered if his father was in the city at all. I haven't spoken to him in a month, Sasha thought. I've been too busy even to call my own father.
Sasha had to admit it to himself -- despite his connections and his bloodlines -- his usual sources for Fabergé had completely dried up. The Russian dealers he knew had already been lured to Christie's and Sotheby's with promises of commission reductions he could not afford to offer. Many said they had nothing left to sell. This was the first time the head of his department was counting on him alone to find something incredible, and he wasn't sure he could do it. This is the first sale I won't be able to pull off, Sasha thought, dashing across Fifth Avenue at Seventy-third Street, and walking east toward his office.
B B B
Sasha never ceased to be impressed by the beautiful building that housed Leighton's Fine Art Auctioneers. Designed by McKim, Mead, and White, and built at the turn of the twentieth century for a publishing magnate, the mansion was a copy of a Venetian palazzo. Leighton's galleried and columned facade was one of the greatest in New York, and Sasha glanced up at it, steeling himself for his day.
Inside his department the phones were ringing, and Sasha could see and hear through the glass window into her office that Anne was on the phone, having an agitated conversation with a client and tapping on a silver tureen lid for emphasis.
Dr. Anne Holton was one of the world's most respected experts on Russian works of art. She was universally admired within the field for her thorough knowledge of Russian language and culture, which she had acquired through years of studying at the NYU institute, teaching at Bard, and working for the Forbes Collection. Anne was attractive, her face unworn by thirty years in the field. This season, however, her patrician features remained permanently distorted by stress, and to enter a room where Anne was working was to leave exhausted, her palpable anxiety rubbing off on anyone near.
"Ce n'est pas possible!" she said firmly into the phone in her Farmington-accented French. "Cette couronne est completement incorrecte -- les Princes Wolkonsky n'etaient pas...Shit!" She slammed down the phone into its receiver, and slammed the lid down onto its tureen.
"You're lucky that tureen isn't porcelain," Sasha said, leaning against the doorjamb of her office.
"Madame Safiyeh is lucky I don't fly to Geneva and tell her how better to occupy her days than by showing me again and again that she knows nothing," Anne said sharply while lighting an illegal Gauloise. "This tureen is making me crazy. She insists it belonged to the Princes Wolkonsky, and it does have a Latin 'W,' but it has a count's coronet. She has Wolkonsky documentation, but whose cipher is it? To top it off, it's an English silver tureen from the 1830s by Storr, and I can't even sell it in our sale."
Sasha thought for a minute, and his eyes brightened.
"One of the Counts Woronzoff was the Russian ambassador to Britain in the early nineteenth century -- there's a great portrait of him by Lawrence in the Hermitage. Maybe his daughter or a niece married a Wolkonsky, and it was wedding silver with her coronet and cipher?"
Anne began to beam.
"That's why I keep you around, Sasha; you are just too good to be true!" Anne patted him on the shoulder and left to announce the discovery to the silver department.
Relieved, Sasha went to his desk. Praise from Anne was increasingly rare, and he was happy for any little bit that came his way. Anne had been a pupil of his mother's, and what Sasha hadn't learned from his mother, he had learned from Anne. In the absence of his mother's approval, Sasha had actively sought Anne's during the years he had been at Leighton's, and they had developed a rapport that was extremely important to him.
He weeded through his mail, glancing at the photographs sent to him for evaluation. The pictures of icons, porcelain, jewelry, and other trappings of the Russian Empire fluttered from their envelopes to his desk like brittle leaves.
The phone rang. It was Anne calling from the silver department.
"Sasha, listen -- Silver is thrilled. Your idea means they can raise the estimate, and now it's off our plate entirely. I told them there's no way to complete the research in time for their catalogue deadline. They need everything by the end of the week."
"Don't be silly, I can do it," Sasha said and immediately regretted it. He was always trying to impress Anne with the amount of work he was capable of doing, and invariably ended up buried under it.
"Good work, Sasha, really," Anne said, and he could hear the smile in her voice. She continued, "Oh, we have a new client coming in at ten. He says that he has something so important, that he'll only show it to us in the boardroom. He's a Russian, but his English is excellent. Also, he specifically asked that you be there."
"Why me?" Sasha asked with interest. "You're head of the department."
"He said to make certain that His Highness Prince Ozerovsky would be at the meeting. The piece has something to do with your family. It's Fabergé."
"What is it?" Sasha asked.
"Sasha, who cares? At this point, we need to pull in some spectacular things to compete with the Sotheby's and Christie's sales in May. A great piece of Fabergé jewelry would really save us this sale."
"Well, I hope whatever this Russian brings in isn't some Brooklyn fake."
"He'll be in at ten. His name is Dimitri Durakov. We'll meet him in the boardroom. Will you arrange for coffee and pastries?"
"Sure. But he'll want tea. I have some good Kousmichoff tea in my desk -- he won't drink that boardroom stuff, that's for sure."
Anne said good-bye and added, "Don't be late, Your Highness."
Sasha called catering to have the coffee and hot water for tea ready in the boardroom. As soon as he hung up, he turned his attention back to the evaluation requests on his desk, and busied himself in appraisals and identifications. Sasha was concerned, however, that even if he could find a good strong piece for the sale in the pile, he still couldn't be sure it would do them any good. Christie's necklace, "by repute" belonging to the Empress, had pulled all the attention away from the good pieces that they did have. Sasha and Anne were in trouble. Soon, the phone rang again. It was Lucile at the front counter.
"Sasha, your nine o'clock is here. She seems painless. Chanel suit, good jewelry." Sasha glanced at the clock. Had an hour gone by already?
"Does she look like a storyteller?" he asked. "I only have an hour for her."
"No, darling," Lucile said, "she looks like the real thing."
If this client didn't have an insanely long story about her object, he would be fine. The length of Sasha's appointments had become a joke around the office.
Descending the staircase, Sasha could see his client waiting; he could sum her up in a minute. She knew exactly what her piece was worth, and she had probably already shown it to Christie's and Sotheby's and was weighing her offers.
Lucile stood by the woman's side. Noting Sasha's arrival, she flashed him the broad and beautiful smile that was her signature and continued chatting animatedly with his client. Lucile introduced clients to specialists with the consummate skill of a hostess, immediately placing them at ease. She was one of Leighton's greatest assets. Lucile made incoming clients feel as if they were about to become members of an exclusive club, rather than about to be divested of a treasure that had been in their family for generations.
"Mrs. Dean, this is Alexander Ozerovsky, a specialist in the Russian Works of Art Department," Lucile said.
Sasha turned on as much charm as he thought she might want to receive. He was a good judge of those clients who wanted icy reserve, friendly professionalism, or flirtation.
"Mrs. Dean, it's a pleasure," he said, shaking her hand and smiling warmly.
"How nice to meet you," she replied. "When I lived in Paris years ago, I knew your mother, the Princess Nina."
"How kind of you to remember her," Sasha said, deciding to switch to icy reserve. "If you'll follow me, we can go into a viewing room. For privacy."
The two slipped into a small room lined in fawn-colored baize. Mrs. Dean settled into one of the two small French chairs separated by a desk that held a black velvet-covered tray and the tools for examining jewelry.
"The piece I want to show you belonged to my mother," Mrs. Dean began. "She was French, and married a Russian during the Great War. Not from an illustrious Russian family, but quite rich..."
Sasha's eyes began to glaze over. He could see the story would be ripe with nostalgia. Obviously, she had told it many times, and Sasha wondered how much of it would be accurate.
"My mother and father met in 1916. They were married in the Russian Church at Nice in May, and then went to Saint Petersburg. He called her his 'little lovebird,' and Mother adored it." Mrs. Dean sighed at the memory. "The winter season nearly killed her, however. She said wartime Russia was cold and dark, and the society at Petersburg a bore. When the season was over, she said, there was no way she would ever spend another winter in Russia. She never wanted to see the color grey again, and would hardly be his lovebird if she had to sit through another winter in Saint Petersburg."
How much longer will she go on? Sasha wondered.
"Well, when they had their one-year anniversary in Nice the following May, Father gave her this." Mrs. Dean reached into her crocodile Kelly bag. Sasha's heart skipped a beat. In her hand was one of the instantly recognizable boxes of the House of Fabergé. Made of pale holly wood, it was square with the rounded corners and carefully beveled edges he knew so well. Mrs. Dean placed the box on the table and gently pushed it toward him.
Sasha opened it carefully.
Inside was a necklace that took his breath away. It was unlike anything he had ever seen by Fabergé.
Three graduated strands of perfectly matched grey pearls looped around the interior of the box and met at an exquisite clasp meant to be worn at the side. The clasp, a neoclassical wreath made of diamonds, was pierced by two arrows, on which sat two tiny kissing lovebirds. The stones were exceptionally white, and were set in brilliantly chased platinum, exquisitely contrasting with the soft grey pearls. It was a masterpiece.
Sasha lifted the necklace in his hands. The pearls were heavy. The Jewelry Department would fight to sell this piece -- these natural pearls would fetch a fortune -- their sheer size and perfection made them far more valuable than diamonds.
"Mrs. Dean, I don't know what to say," Sasha said, gently placing the necklace back in the box. "I'm afraid I must be honest. I have no idea what this is worth. There are no surviving works by Fabergé like it that I know of, and, as I believe you already know, the pearls are worth a ransom. I can show this to the Jewelry Department, and they can let me know what the actual stones and pearls are worth. Then, of course, with research in the archives in Saint Petersburg, we may be able to come up with more on the piece that would greatly increase its value -- the designs, bills, and other such things."
Mrs. Dean smiled.
"But," Sasha continued, "may I ask you a personal question?"
"I may not answer," she said, still smiling, "but please."
"Do you need the money?"
Mrs. Dean looked at him carefully. "No," she said. "I don't. But it lives in safe deposit. I wear it only on Easter and New Year's, and only at home. People just don't have the lifestyle for this sort of jewelry anymore. I'm terrified even to have it out for now."
Anne's voice rang in his head: A great piece of Fabergé jewelry would really save us this sale.
"Mrs. Dean," Sasha said slowly, getting the better of his need for an important piece, "this really goes against everything I am trained to do here, but if I were you, I wouldn't sell this necklace."
"And why?" she asked.
"Mrs. Dean, none of the families for whom these jewels were made has them any more. Even rarer than the necklace itself is the fact that your family still has it. I can sell this piece for you, and you will make a great deal of money, but it will go to someone who I am certain will not get as much pleasure from it as you do. It will only get more valuable as time goes on, and perhaps your children will need the money. If that turns out not to be the case, it will make more people happy in a museum, where it can be seen. I'd hate to see it vanish into the private collection of some Saudi princess, or be cut up by a jeweler for the sheer value of the three separate strands of pearls and the Fabergé clasp that can be reconfigured as a brooch."
Mrs. Dean sat silent for minute, and then she softly closed the lid of the box and slipped it back into her cognac-colored bag. "How funny," she said.
"What is?" Sasha asked.
"That is the same advice your mother gave me twenty-five years ago. You're very much like her, you know. You have the same smile." Mrs. Dean rose from her seat and extended her hand. "Alexander, it has been a pleasure. Perhaps I'll wear this at the Russian Nobility Ball in the spring."
"I'll see you there," Sasha said. "I go every year."
"I'll look forward to it, then," Mrs. Dean said, and the two rose and walked back to the front counter.
And there, once again, was Sasha's biggest problem. He had been hired by Leighton's to cajole, seduce, and convince clients to sell their things, but one time in every ten he was unable to do so. Every transaction felt as if he had conscience on one shoulder and commerce on the other. He had no problem with his conscience when getting dealers or nouveau riche collectors to part with a piece of Fabergé they had acquired with the intention of making a profit or impressing others; they were all fair game as far as he was concerned. But when Sasha came across a piece of history still in the hands of a Russian family, he was incapable of the mercenary behavior required by his profession. He felt obligated not to break apart collections that had survived over generations, intact through revolution and war. How many pieces had he let slip through Leighton's hands over the past seven years? He couldn't count them anymore -- and how long would it be before they found out? Sasha didn't know and didn't care. Even this season, when they were so strapped for a brilliant piece, blind need hadn't changed his behavior.
"Any good?" Lucile asked, stepping to his side as he watched Mrs. Dean walk down Leighton's front steps and into a waiting black sedan.
"Beautiful," Sasha replied, "but sadly, not for sale."
"That's too bad, darling. Better luck next time, yes?"
Sasha nodded and turned to leave when Lucile tapped him on the shoulder.
"Oh, by the way, that Russian client of yours just went up to the boardroom. He's very good looking, but..." Her voice trailed off.
"But what?" Sasha asked.
"But he's wearing one of those dreadful leather coats all the new Russians seem to wear."
"Oh, dear," Sasha said. "Thanks, Lucile. I feel a fake coming on."
Copyright © 2004 by Nicholas B.A. Nicholson
Object of Virtue
Sasha Ozerovsky is a young expert in Russian art at Leighton's, an exclusive Manhattan auction house. When a dealer arrives from Moscow with an exquisite 1913 Fabergé figurine, Sasha immediately recognizes a rare masterpiece. But in the high stakes art world, the price of an object is tied to its history. If Sasha can determine for whom the bejeweled piece was made and where it has been hiding for the past century, its value -- and Sasha's career -- will soar.
But as Sasha moves between New York's high society and Russia's new rich, he discovers that the piece once belonged to his family, and he must face questions about their past that he never dared to ask.
Superbly plotted and evoking the elegance of Russia's gilded age, Object of Virtue is an enthralling tale that explores what happens to a family torn between vanity and virtue.