NEW YORK - Just two months before Sotheby's was to auction the Forbes family's fabled Imperial Faberge Easter eggs, Victor Vekselberg, one of a new generation of Russian industrialists, bought the entire collection and plans to take it back to Russia, Sotheby's said yesterday.
None of the parties would disclose the price of the private sale, which includes nine Imperial Faberge eggs - the second largest collection after the 10 in the Kremlin - along with some 180 other Faberge objects. But experts familiar with the Faberge market estimate that Vekselberg paid about $100 million for the collection, which Sotheby's had predicted would bring at least $90 million at auction.
Vekselberg, 47, is the chief operating officer of TNK-BP, Russia's third-largest oil company, and is said to be the fourth richest man in Russia, according to Forbes magazine.
Vekselberg was traveling yesterday and could not be reached for comment, officials at Sotheby's said. But in a statement released by the auction house, he said the purchase "represents perhaps the most significant example of our cultural heritage outside Russia."
He added that when he heard that the collection assembled by the late Malcolm Forbes, the publishing magnate, was for sale, he "knew immediately that this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to give back to my country one of its most revered treasures."
Bob Burkett, a spokesman for Vekselberg, said he was planning in some way to "make them available to the Russian people." Asked whether this meant putting them on view at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg or the Kremlin, Burkett said it was too early to say.
Christopher Forbes, vice chairman of Forbes, said he was thrilled with the sale. "It's fun we got to be the custodian of them for as long as we did," he said. "But it's a new Russia, an era of free enterprise. How nice to see them repatriated."
For the past year and a half, Forbes said, there had been people "sniffing" around to see if he and his brothers and sister would sell their father's collection. Some were serious, he said, others were not.
"Initially, they were from the U.S., Asia, the Middle East, Europe," Forbes said. It was only after Sotheby's announced plans for the auction that some Russians whom Forbes described as "real serious players" came forward.