In 2010, an American scrap-metal dealer visited an antiques stall somewhere in the United States and purchased a golden egg sitting on a three-legged stand. The egg was adorned with diamonds and sapphires, and it opened to reveal a clock. Intending to sell the object to a buyer who would melt it down for its component metals, the dealer purchased this egg-clock for $13,302. He then had trouble selling it, as potential buyers deemed it overpriced.

The dealer had valued it incorrectly—but not the way he originally thought. In 2014, the man—who remains anonymous—discovered that his little golden objet d’art was one of the 50 exquisitely bespoke Fabergé Easter eggs created for imperial Russia’s royal Romanov family. Its value? An estimated $33 million.

The Romanovs’ extravagant royal Easter egg tradition began with Czar Alexander III in 1885. Alexander was then in the fifth year of his reign, having succeeded his father, Alexander II, who had been killed by bomb-wielding assassins. In 1885, Alexander sought an Easter gift to surprise and delight his wife Maria Feodorovna, who had spent her early years as a Danish princess before leaving Copenhagen to marry him and become a Russian empress. He turned to Peter Carl Fabergé, a master goldsmith who had taken over his father’s House of Fabergé jewelry business in 1882. 

Gifts that were ‘immensely personal, yet gloriously flamboyant’

Instead of crafting a dazzling necklace or a breathtaking ring, Fabergé created something deceptively plain: a white enameled egg around two-and-a-half inches tall. But the real treasures were to be found inside. The egg twisted apart to reveal a golden yolk within. Inside the yolk was a golden hen sitting on golden straw. Hidden in the hen was a tiny diamond crown that held an even tinier ruby pendant.

This astonishing creation, known as the Hen Egg, was the first of an eventual 50 Fabergé imperial eggs commissioned annually by the Romanov family’s two final czars: Alexander III and, from 1894, Nicholas II. Fabergé crafted the initial eggs according to Alexander’s specifications. After the first few years, says Fabergé expert Dr. Géza von Habsburg, “he was basically given carte blanche to use his creativity and the craftsmanship of his workshops to produce really the very best that could be imagined as an Easter present.”

Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images
The Faberge Hen Egg, part of 'Imperial Treasures: Faberge from the Forbes Collection' at Sotheby's auction house in New York, 2004.

These one-of-a-kind creations, given to the czars’ wives, Maria and Alexandra Feodorovna, were “immensely personal, yet gloriously flamboyant,” wrote Toby Faber in Fabergé’s Eggs. No two were even slightly similar, and each contained a surprise meaningful to the recipient. 

In 1897, Nicholas II gave his wife Alexandra the Imperial Coronation Egg. The shell is made of gold embellished with translucent yellow enamel and overlaid with black enamel double-headed eagles. Inside the white velvet-lined egg is an exquisitely detailed miniature 18th-century golden carriage. The object, which took more than a year to create, is a replica of a coach once owned by Catherine the Great and used in Nicholas and Alexandra’s own 1896 coronation procession.

The 1901 Gatchina Palace egg, which Nicholas II gave to his mother Maria Feodorovna, has a pearl-encrusted shell of gold, enamel, silver-gilt, portrait diamonds and rock crystal. It opens to reveal a faithful rendering of the palace Maria called home.

How the eggs fared after the Revolution

Manuel Litran/Paris Match/Getty Images
The Faberge Imperial Coronation Egg at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, 1993.

All was shiny and beautiful in the imperial palaces, but by the early 20th century, Nicholas II was contending with international conflicts, nationwide impoverishment, a population boom and a growing number of former serfs eager to overthrow a czar they saw as oppressive and out of touch. In 1904 and 1905, when Russia was at war with Japan, Nicholas suspended his annual Fabergé egg commission. 

He resumed the tradition in 1906, though, and had one delivered every Easter until 1917. That year, Fabergé worked on two eggs, but before they could be presented, the Bolshevik’s February Revolution arrived and Nicholas II was forced to abdicate the throne. His entire family was executed by Bolsheviks the following year.

So what became of the imperial eggs? Under the orders of new leader Vladimir Lenin, the Bolsheviks packed up the eggs and other royal valuables they found at the imperial palaces and stashed them safely at the Kremlin in Moscow. In the 1920s and ‘30s, the Russian economy tanked and famine affected millions. The country's new leaders, looking to make some quick rubles, started selling the imperial eggs to international buyers.

Tom Roster/AP Photo
The Fabergé Gatchina Egg pictured on display in an exhibit, called 'Palaces of St. Petersburg: Russian Imperial Style' at the Mississippi Arts Pavilion.

Today, there are 10 eggs at the Kremlin Armory, nine at the Fabergé Museum in St. Petersburg, five at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and three each at the Royal Collection in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Two more are on display in Lausanne, Switzerland, two at Hillwood Estate in Washington, D.C., and two at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. There’s a single egg in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art, one in Monte Carlo, and one at the Fabergé Museum in Baden-Baden, Germany. One is also owned by Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the former Emir of Qatar.

The fate of several eggs remains unknown.

Tony Evans/Getty Images
Three additional Fabergé eggs created for the Russian imperial family: (L-R) the Cuckoo Clock Egg or Cockerel Egg, the Lilies of the Valley Egg, and the Blue Serpent Clock Egg.

The fate of seven imperial eggs remain a mystery. Fabergé experts "know of two further eggs which are in the West," says von Habsburg, "or which at a certain moment were in the West.”

They include the 1889 Necessaire Egg, last spotted in London in 1949, and the 1888 Cherub With Chariot Egg, which seems to have been exhibited at Lord & Taylor department store in New York in 1934. Von Habsburg says certain clues about the eggs’ whereabouts are currently being pursued.

The mystery surrounding the lost eggs perpetuates their legendary history of being seen only by an elite few. These things were never shown to the Russian public, with one exception, says von Habsburg—a 1902 exhibition in St. Petersburg. “Nobody knew about them—they were kept in the two or three imperial palaces that the family inhabited.”

The excess of the eggs, and their seclusion from the public, reflect the elitist, out-of-touch final years of Czarist Russia. “They may be masterpieces,” wrote Faber, “but they also embody extravagance that even the Romanovs’ most ardent supporter would find hard to justify.”