Surprise! Queen of England loans Houston museum her tiniest royal elephant


Best not tell little Prince George, but Houston has Queen Elizabeth’s lost elephant and we’re not only giving it a royal reunion fit for a king, we’re keeping it for a year.

Let’s back up because this elephantine tale of how a rediscovered Peter Carl Fabergé “Surprise” ended up the Houston Museum of Natural Science in the new Dorothy and Artie McFerrin Gallery takes a bit of a telling.

Technically, the imperial pachyderm in question was merely misidentified and mostly forgotten for many decades inside Buckingham Palace, probably because it’s made of ivory and only stands about an inch high. The intricate diamond-jeweled mechanical elephant can be wound with a special key which sets its head and legs in motion.

We can’t blame the Queen for misplacing her elephant because she probably didn’t even know it existed, as it was her grandfather, King George V who purchased this Russian Fabergé treasure.

The House of Fabergé created this tiny piece of art as hidden “surprise” included in the Diamond Trellis Egg commissioned by Tsar Alexander III as an Easter gift for Tsarina Maria Feodorovna in 1892. The Imperial Easter Egg, the third Imperial Easter Egg created by Fabergé, was carved from green jadeite and latticed with diamonds.

During the Russian Revolution in 1917, many of the imperial treasures were seized and then later sold off and scattered across Europe and beyond. The Diamond Trellis Egg passed through the hands of several different owners and, somewhere along the way, the Egg lost its surprising elephant yolk.

That elephant trampled its way – on itty bitty trunks – back into a royal household when King George V purchased it in 1935.

Royal Family Tree Trivia: George V, Elizabeth’s grandfather and the grandson of Queen Victoria, was also the nephew of Alexander III, because everyone is relative in European aristocratic circles.

Flash forward to 2015 when Caroline de Guitaut, senior curator of the Royal Collection Trust comes upon our cute little friend while cataloging and realizes it might be the bejeweled animal “surprise” created for the Diamond Trellis Egg.

To complete this story, we must also flash sideways across the pond to Houston where Dorothy and Artie McFerrin have been collecting Fabergé artworks since 2005 and have now accumulated one of the largest private Fabergé collections in the world, which they placed on long-term loan to the HMNS.

Last month, the completion of the Dorothy and Artie McFerrin Gallery, underwritten by the Artie and Dorothy McFerrin Foundation, became the perfect time and place to reunite elephant and egg for the first time in almost a century, thanks to the official lending by Her Majesty The Queen from the Royal Collection. Now Houstonians and visitors from around the world can view this delicate and detailed work of art as a whole, the way it was originally created by the House of Fabergé.

Of course the state-of-art, new gallery, holds more than the Diamond Trellis Egg and Surprise. This first special exhibition in the space, Fabergé: Royal Gifts featuring the Trellis Egg Surprise also contains jewelry, clocks, picture frames, boxes, fans, everyday objects, which only an emperor or empress would dare use everyday, and more Fabergé eggs.

The Dorothy and Artie McFerrin Gallery is quite appropriately found within the Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals, as the exhibition let’s us see what how colorful, shimmering earth stones can be fashioned into art.

Fabergé: Royal Gifts featuring the Trellis Egg Surprise will be on display until April 18, 2018. Still, we probably shouldn’t tell Prince George. He seems like the type of royal toddler who’d invade to get his elephant back.

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