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Pieter Brueghel the Elder, The Massacre of the Innocents, c.1565-7

Close examination of objects in the Royal Collection reveals unexpected details

Mikhail Perkhin (1860-1903)

Elephant automaton 1892

RCIN 9268

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This elephant and castle, replicating the Badge of the Order of the Elephant, the highest order of chivalry in Denmark, was purchased in London by King George V and Queen Mary in 1935. The beautifully made ivory, gold, enamel and diamond-set object was hidden for 80 years in a cabinet in Buckingham Palace, until it was identified as an automaton, a moving mechanical object. The elephant matched the description of a lost ‘surprise’ originally contained within an imperial Easter egg, the Diamond Trellis Egg, made by the renowned Russian jeweller and goldsmith, Carl Fabergé (1864–1920).

A Royal Collection Trust curator compared the elephant to a surviving inventory description of the Fabergé surprise held in Russian archives. All the details matched except the elephant appeared to have no hallmarks, which would confirm that it was the missing surprise from the Diamond Trellis Egg. Our skilled conservators deconstructed the automaton to allow closer physical examination, and this led to the discovery of a lid to the castle on the elephant’s back. Once the lid was removed, the hallmarks of the Fabergé firm were revealed and the provenance of the elephant could be confirmed.

Now in a private collection in America, the Diamond Trellis Egg was an Easter present to Empress Marie Feodorovna of Russia (1847–1928) in 1892. The empress was born Princess Dagmar of Denmark. When she opened the egg on Easter morning to reveal the elephant ‘surprise’, the empress must have been struck by its significance to her Danish heritage, and charmed by its lumbering movement, so characteristic of the real animal. Eighty years later, during the process of its rediscovery in the Royal Collection, the winding key was inserted and the automaton walked once again. 

Watch the film below to find out more

Film exploring this Fabergé surprise ©