Thursday, January 29, 2015

(No.282) Faberge Eggs at a Vegas Casino

"Faberge's Imperial Easter Eggs at a Las Vegas casino"

by Alastair Rickard

When Steve Wynn, the most creative and sophisticated entrepreneur in the history of modern Las Vegas, built the Mirage Hotel in 1989, then the magnificent $1.6 billion Bellagio Hotel (centrally located on the Strip) in 1998 followed by Wynn Las Vegas in 2005 and its sister establishment Encore in 2008, he set the standard for upscale resort hotels along the Strip.

In the Bellagio Wynn included an art gallery where he displayed his own extensive collection. A major work in Wynn's personal collection was Picasso's Le Reve which he had bought in 1997 for $48 million. In 2006 he had arranged to sell it for $139 million to hedge fund player Steve Cohen. However, while showing the painting to some guests Wynn (who has degenerative eye disease and is now legally blind) turned and put his elbow through the painting. No surprise, the sale was cancelled.

The painting was repaired for $90,000 but was still considered to have lost considerable market value.However in 2012 Wynn did sell the painting to Cohen -- this time for the higher price of $155 million.

After Wynn sold the Bellagio hotel to the MGM chain the art gallery was maintained as a space for special exhibitions and is now called the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art (the BGFA). It is not a particularly large space compared to that available in a major public gallery but it does bring to Las Vegas some interesting special exhibitions which change periodically. These are arranged with various galleries like the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

To some extent the presence of the Bellagio Gallery as a public attraction on the Las Vegas Strip, while in admirable contrast to the huge monument to excess and (largely) bad taste constituted by the Vegas Strip, seems almost as unlikely as a string quartet would be playing at the Palomino Club on Las Vegas Boulevard North..

If you visit Las Vegas and have an interest in art it is always worthwhile to check out what the special exhibition at the Bellagio is. Pat and I have visited the Bellagio gallery to see several exhibitions. For example: "A Sense of Place: Landscapes From Monet to Hockney" was worthwhile viewing as was "Claude Monet: Impressions of Light".

Currently on display at the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art and continuing through May 25 this year is "Faberge Revealed: Jeweler to the Czars".  It is an exhibition organized by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) which has perhaps the best public Faberge collection outside of Russia. Most of the VMFA's collection came from a 1947 bequest by an avid Faberege collector, Lillian Thomas Pratt, the wife of a GM executive.

The Faberge exhibition currently at the Bellagio has been on tour since the autumn of 2012 while renovations have been under way at the VMFA. The tour included a 9 month stay at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. The last stop will be The Palace Museum in Beijing (April-July 2016).

The House of Faberge was founded in St.Petersburg in 1842 by Gustave Faberge. His son Karl Faberge (1848-1920) created many valuable objects for Czars Alexander III and Nicholas II, having become a supplier to the Russian royal court in 1885, the year in which Faberge created the first Imperial Easter Egg.

The exhibition comprises 240 objects from the VFMA collection including 4 of the 43 remaining Imperial Easter Eggs commissioned by the Czars as gifts for family members. Today the Kremlin has only 10 Imperial Eggs, the Communists having sold off all the rest post-revolution.

Also included in the exhibition at the Bellagio is a small collection of so-called "Fauxberge" objects -- Faberge forgeries and look-alikes that have inundated the art market since after the Communist revolution ended both the lives of the Imperial family and the Faberge presence in Russia in 1918. Karl fled to Switzerland in 1918 and died in 1920.

Throughout the decades of the later 1800s and early 1900s the House of Faberge produced more than 150,000 works of art, jewelry, gold and silver, a large majority of which have disappeared. These one-of-a-kind objects were produced with exceptional design and artistry. The exhibition at the Bellagio Gallery, featuring some magnificent signature pieces from Faberge, is an impressive offering.

Both the audio guides to the exhibition and the explanation panels on the walls of the gallery are excellent. For details of the exhibition currently at the Bellagio in Las Vegas until May 25, 2015
go to




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Sunday, January 18, 2015

(No.281) "A Quartet of Trilogies: Olivia Manning, Philip Kerr & Daniel Woodrell"

"A Quartet of Trilogies by Olivia Manning, Philip Kerr
and Daniel Woodrell"

by Alastair Rickard

Recently I have reread four excellent trilogies, novels about which I have written previously in columns on : the two trilogies which comprise Olivia Manning's "Fortunes of War", "Berlin Noir" by Philip Kerr and "The Bayou Trilogy" by Daniell Woodrell. All are in print.

In 1989 the Scottish novelist Philip Kerr created a character named Bernie Gunther, a Berlin city police detective and then a private detective before and after the rise to power of Hitler and the Nazis in 1933. Kerr's first three Gunther novels followed this character through the war ("March Violets"1989  and "The Pale Criminal" 1990)  and to post-war Berlin and Vienna ("A German Requiem" 1991). After this trio Kerr stopped writing novels featuring Gunther for fifteen years. In 1993 the first three Gunther novels were republished as a trilogy under the title "Berlin Noir".

Beginning in 2006 Kerr has written six more Bernie Gunther novels with the seventh, "The Lady From Zagreb", to be published this spring.

In addition to being first rate political thrillers the novels in this trilogy are excellent fictional representations of pre-war Berlin under Hitler as are the series of 'Berlin Station' novels by David Downing. As with the pre-1939 novels of Alan Furst set in Europe the atmosphere created by Kerr's writing and the sense of doom they convey are almost palpable.

[Philip Kerr, "Berlin Noir", Penguin 1993; reissued 2012]


Olivia Manning, an important English novelist, is in an ongoing process of rediscovery. It was  advanced in 2013 by the publication of a literary biography that includes concise critical appraisals of her thirteen novels and two volumes of short stories ("Olivia Manning: A Woman at War" by Deirdre David). Certainly Manning deserves more attention from readers today.

Anthony Burgess wrote in the Sunday Times of London, referring to Manning's novels set in World War II: they are "the finest fictional record of the war produced by a British writer. Her gallery of of personages is huge, her scene painting superb, her pathos controlled, her humour quiet and civilized. Guy Pringle certainly is one of the major characters in modern fiction." He was right.

Manning was born in Portsmouth in 1908, had a fairly impoverished and certainly unpleasant childhood made more so by the behaviour of her philandering father and the treatment she received from her mother. In 1930 she made it to London where she supported herself while writing a novel.

In 1938 she  met her husband to be, R.D. 'Reggie' Smith, the model for the Guy Pringle character in the six of her novels comprising what is today called "Fortunes Of War". Smith was cheerful, outgoing, friendly and talkative with people he knew in every pub he visited in London.

Three weeks after they met they married and five days after that they headed by train to Bucharest Romania where Smith had a teaching job working for the British Council. After the war came to Romania in 1940 they left Bucharest for Athens just ahead of the advancing German army, later repeating the experience on a ship that sailed to Alexandria after Greece was overrun in 1941. Like the Pringle characters Manning and Smith spent the remainder of the war in the Middle East returning to Britain in 1946.

Manning's fiction did not win her the public attention received by contemporary male and female English novelists like Kingsley Amis and Iris Murdoch, something she came to resent. However her crowning literary achievement, the one that has kept and will continue to keep her writing in print did not begin to appear until 1960 when she published the first of six novels (the last in 1980, the year of her death).

They featured the wartime lives of Harriet and Guy Pringle, in many respects a close reflection of the years she and Reggie spent together from 1938 to 1945. But the novels are not a disguised memoir; they are a major literary achievment.

It was not long after they married that Manning began to experience the effect of Smith's character on their relationship, an effect that eventually found its way into the depiction of Guy and Harriet Pringle.

In 1981 the first three of these novels were republished as "The Balkan Trilogy" which took the story up to their arrival in Egypt. The second three novels appeared in 1982 as "The Levant Trilogy" and carried the story into Egypt, Palestine and Syria. with more than a sidelong glance at the British desert campaign in north Africa. Again, the events in the lives of Manning and Smith during this period provide the framework for much of the story.

Both trilogies, which form a single narrative, were published under the rubric "The Fortunes of War". Manning lived long enough to learn that the trilogies would be made into a BBC television mini-series.

This appeared in 1987 starring the (then) husband and wife team of Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh both giving superb performances as Harriet and Guy Pringle. The series was also aired in North America and is one of the best such adaptions of modern literary fiction I have watched.

Of Olivia Manning's two trilogies the first, the Balkan Trilogy, tells a somewhat more interesting and intense story while the Pringles wait in anxiety-ridden Bucharest and then Athens for the next step by the Germans. However the Levant Trilogy, while told in a lower key, may be even more absorbing in terms of the relationships that Harriet and Guy Pringle have with each other and with those around them.

Both trilogies are richly rewarding reading and powerful evocations of the author's experience in the war. The depiction of the memorable relationship of Harriet and Guy is not only the golden literary thread that runs through all six novels but, for readers like me, the guarantee that both trilogies will continue to be reread.

["The Balkan Trilogy", first published as such in 1980. Available currently in soft cover as a republication by New York Review Books, New York (2010)
"The Levant Trilogy", first published as such in 1981. Available as a Phoenix imprint softcover edition of Orion Books, London (2003)
Deirdre David, "Olivia Manning: A Woman at War", (Oxford, 2013)
BBC DVD, "Fortunes of War", 407 minutes (1987), available from online sources]


I have never seen the American novelist Daniel Woodrell interviewed on an arts show. Perhaps it is because he lives in the Ozarks and does not seek publicity. Dennis Lehane, the bestselling novelist, has called Woodrell "the least known major writer in the country". In an Esquire magazine review he was referred to as "the best regarded obscure novelist in America".

Woodrell has been writing published novels since the mid-1980s but he's been far from prolific. He was sick for several years and has written only ten novels so far. Still, while this number compares favourably with the output over decades  of, say,  William Styron who produced five novels during his life (he spent six years writing "Sophie's Choice: A Memory"), it puts Woodrell in a very different category than most of today's bestselling American novelists.

Three of Woodrells' first four novels featured the members of the Shade family living in a fictional mid-sized southern city he called St.Bruno, located somewhere not all that far from New Orleans. The initial two novels in the series had as a particular focus the life of one of the three Shade sons, Rene, a former boxer turned cop.

The novels "Under the Bright Lights", "Muscle For the Wing" and " The Ones You Do" have been republished in one volume entitled "The Bayou Trilogy" (2011). When originally published the second and third novels of this fine trilogy were commercially unsuccessful.

The books convey so effectively the dark side of a Louisiana city in the 1980s and 90s that they prompted the modern master of Los Angeles noir crime fiction James Elroy to call Woodrell the "bayou Elmore Leonard", high praise indeed for any novelist setting out to create believable noir crime fiction. Woodrell himself even dubbed one of his novels "country noir". His own favourite among the three novels in the Bayou Trilogy  is "The Ones You Do".

Daniel Woodrell left the 'bayou' novels behind and switched location and subjects to the Ozarks where he had been born and to which he returned after a varied life. He and his wife, novelist Katie Estill, live in the Ozarks in West Plain, Missouri. His time away from his own part of the country started with  a hitch in the U.S. Marine Corps in which he enlisted when he was 17 and from which he was discharged for drug use after eighteen months.

[These novels by Daniel Woodrell
1. "Under the Bright Lights" (1986)
2. "Muscle For The Wing" (1988)
3. "The Ones You Do" (1992)
 were reissued in one omnibus volume as "The Bayou Trilogy" by Little Brown in 2011]




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are listed chronologically in the margin beside each column
as it appears on the website, go to
a recent column and use the links

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Sunday, January 11, 2015

(No.280) "Pt.2 of Buying LIfe Insurance in Canada: More on Accidental Death Insurance"

"Part 2 of the series 'Buying life insurance in Canada':
some interesting responses to the column on accidental 
death life insurance"

by Alastair Rickard

In my first column in this occasional series (RickardsRead, no.279 posted Dec.31, 2014) I reiterated for life insurance consumers my long held and oft-articulated negative view of accidental death insurance  (i.e., life insurance that will only pay a death benefit to a beneficiary IF the death of the life insured is the result of an accident) -- an eligible accidental cause of death being defined by the life insurance company issuing the AD policy.

In response to the column I received a number of responses. I have selected four which are both interesting and informed. As is my custom in using readers' emails in I have identified the writers not by name but rather to make clear their insurance connections to readers.

From an American writer and teacher with a longtime involvement with insurance:
"I found No. 279 fascinating. ...  Many years ago I had occasion to fly into LaGuardia for a meeting in New York City.  On the return trip, I took an airport bus from the terminal in midtown Manhattan.  I sat next to a good looking, gray-haired gentleman with four stripes on his sleeve.  In answer to my question, he confirmed he was an airline captain, and he asked what I did for a living.  I told him I was an insurance professor.  He immediately asked for my views on accidental death flight insurance sold through airport vending machines.  You can imagine what I told him.

"He then said he captained transatlantic flights.  He said he liked to spend a few minutes before a flight watching--from a distance--the facial expressions and mannerisms of people buying flight insurance.  He explained that if somebody wants to commit suicide by bringing down a plane and minimize the likelihood investigators will find out what happened, the best plan is to bring it down in the middle of the Atlantic.

"What I cannot remember is whether my chat with the captain was before or after the 1968 publication of Arthur Hailey's novel "Airport," which had precisely such a plot line and later became a blockbuster movie that is not to be confused with the later spoof."

From another American teacher of insurance subjects, also with a longtime involvement with insurance: 
"Great column, Al!  As usual!!!

"My students are astounded to learn that it is highly unlikely for them to die of an accident, as opposed to other means.  Thus, cheap ADI sounds like a good deal.   I quickly disabuse them of that fact; however, my classes are a drop in the bucket and undoubtedly the entire student body believes what my students believed before we tackle the subject.

"My students are also astounded to learn how cheap term (and even whole life) insurance is at their age.  Most of them have never been approached by an agent.

"If you can get your message about ADI out to a broad audience, that would be great."

From a Canadian life insurance agent of long experience:
"1.  I have never added, on any policy that I have sold, an accidental insurance rider.

"2.  My thinking is exactly as you state:  "If a  person needs insurance they should purchase insurance that pays on any type of death."

"3. Several of the life insurance companies through which I sell life insurance send out mailings soliciting AD purchases. They do this as part of their direct sales marketing efforts.

"I was in the midst of working with a client to update term insurance to permanent insurance. The client had suffered a debilitating illness which meant their conversion from term to perm was very very important. Ironically, when they received the marketing material for Accidental Death they duly signed up for AD insurance, thinking this communication was the important conversion from term to perm insurance that we had discussed.

"These are astute people.  They are university graduates and business owners, facts which verify your suspicions that the average person purchasing AD insurance has no idea what they are purchasing. . . or perhaps we should say . .  . .not purchasing."

From a Canadian teacher of insurance subjects:
"I quite enjoyed this article. Accidental death benefits are poorly understood and are usually sold inappropriately, and Canada’s insurers are certainly complicit in offering this lottery-type of coverage to consumers.

"I do have at least one circumstance in which I prefer the use of Accidental Death benefits, though it owes to what I consider a larger failing of the insurance industry today.

"Underwriters at every major insurer, to one degree or another, have started customarily adding an exclusion to the effect of “No claim shall be paid related to an absence from Canada for a period of greater than 30 days.” This exclusion gets added to life insurance policies for consumers who are purchasing life insurance, and have a history of foreign travel with extended absences, especially with respect to East Africa, West Africa, India, Pakistan, and the Philippines. Mostly, this would be immigrants to Canada.

"In such a case there is a real risk that death can occur (e.g.. a heart attack happens on week 3 of a 5 week visit home) and fall under this exclusion. The exclusion is related to some problematic claims (you may have seen these firsthand) where the proof of claim was able to be obtained in another country, even though the actual covered event had not occurred. (e.g., having a doctor forge a death certificate.)

"Where this exclusion gets added I prefer to also have some Accidental Death benefits provided. Most AD benefits do not include an exclusion specifically related to foreign travel, and while my heart attack example, above, would still not get paid out, a bus accident or similar event would, most likely. Of course, in such a case, it is critical that the consumer understand that the AD benefits are simply a gap-filler, and in no way provide a substitute for actual life insurance.

"Curiously, the policy that any [Canadian] soldier can purchase through Manulife (formerly a Maritime Life policy) automatically includes an AD rider which doubles the death benefit if that soldier is killed in what is known as a “Special Duty Area.” SDAs are locations defined by DND [the Dept. of National Defence] and specifically related to the execution of a formal operation. During our time in Afghanistan, this AD rider would actually have paid out in a meaningful number of circumstances."




previous columns & blog archive:
to access individual columns and this blog's archive, the links to which
are listed chronologically in the margin beside each column
as it appears on the website, go to
a recent column and use the links

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in order to receive automatic notice of new columns
as they are posted to, go to