The Windsor sale: Stéphane Boudin and the rise and rise of the decorator

Once upon a time, connoisseur dealers or even museum curators advised collectors what art to buy. Now the decorators hold sway, and at the Windsor sale a decorator’s pastiche pieces outsold real antiques


New York

Without the provenance, it is unlikely that the Sotheby’s sale of the 40,000 plus possessions of the late Duke and Duchess of Windsor would have totalled $23.4 million, more than three times its $7 million estimate. After all, who would pay $29,000 for an ordinary sliver of wedding cake (estimate $500)—but then, in a sense, it had been the consolation prize for the Crown.

But the prices at the sale, held 19-27 February, also revealed a lot about the power of style. Decorators, especially in New York, have an increasingly tyrannical role in the art and antiques market. Where collectors used to rely on the advice of a knowledgeable dealer (just think of the masterful relationship Duveen had with his clients), or took a museum curator with them, now it is more often than not the decorator who has the final say as to whether it is to be a Panini or a Monet for the drawing room. In fact, the profession is now so highly ranked that pastiche pieces produced by a fashionable decorator can fetch prices as high as originals. Sotheby’s Joe Friedman, who spent more than ten years cataloguing the Windsor belongings for Mohammed al-Fayed, buyer of their Paris house, lock, stock and barrel, said: “Overall, the decorative elements outpriced the commemorative artifacts”.

In the case of the Windsor sale, the decorator’s laurels went to a diminutive, mild-mannered Parisian, the late Stéphane Boudin, and his establishment, Maison Jansen.

The furnishings selected by Boudin and made by his workshops represent the height of a certain international style. This was the largest collection of Jansen furnishings ever sold at auction, and they were fiercely coveted by decorators and private individuals to the point that five of the top ten lots were either by Boudin or chosen by him.

Boudin worked for the Windsors from the Thirties through to the Sixties, and also had a hand in Fort Belvedere, the Duke’s earlier English country house. He was the decorating powerhouse of his day. The staff of his vast workshops of gilders, refinishers, master carpenters, furniture-makes, drapers and trompe l’œil painters numbered in the hundreds. In addition, he maintained a formidable stock of eighteenth-and nineteenth-century boiseries as well as a library of period prints, drawings and textiles.

His clients were the famous and super rich: the King of the Belgians, the Shah of Iran, Lady Olive Baillie, Nancy Lancaster Tree, Jayne Wrightsman, Pamela Harriman, and clutches of Patiños, Paleys and Guinesses. As First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy chose Boudin to lead the redecoration of the White House. “Boudin had a profound influence on the restoration and redecoration of many a museum and historical house,” says James A. Abbot, curator of decorative arts at the Baltimore Museum of Arts and author of Designing Camelot: The Kennedy White House Restoration .

A master of lavish faux finishes and gilding, Boudin gave his clients a serene sense of splendour and created furniture that fancifully reinterpreted different periods.

One showy piece at the Windsor sale, probably by Jansen, was a bureau plat veneered with mirror glass overlaid with gilt scrollwork. This was estimated at $30,000-50,000 but feverish bidding drove the price up to $107,000, paid by American sportswear designer Tommy Hilfiger. “I’ve always been impressed with the taste of the Windsors and Boudin’s work for them,” said Mr Hilfiger, who also purchased a pair of consoles with exaggerated eagles for the bases, which Boudin used in the Windsor’s grand entrance hall.

Boudin-designed pieces have appeared at auction before. In the Jacqueline Onassis sale two years ago, there was a carpet similar to that created for the White House and Leeds Castle. Estimated at $2,000-3,000, it sold at $51,750. The Duke and Duchess’s blue carpet with the Prince of Wales feathers woven in silver thread was therefore estimated at $50,00-70,000 but soared to $244,500, making it the third most expensive lot in the entire sale.

Who bid for the pieces? Dealers were scarce, being put off by the fact that it was a celebrity auction. Dealer J. Louis Bofferding, who specialises in Jansen furnishings and purchased two small tables said, “The prices are higher than on the quai Voltaire.” Antique dealers simply scoffed at the unusual looking Boudin creations. Said Mindy Papp of Florian Papp on Madison Avenue, which has sold good eighteenth-century furniture for close to a century, “They’re just repros with no resale value.”

Mr Friedman reports that private clients bought the main Jansen pieces which had been designed specifically to work with antiques. “Some were important international clients who also happen to collect fine eighteenth-and nineteenth-century pieces,” he added.

But does this mean that since Boudin’s Jansen creations have reached such prices, they will now enter museums? “Hardly,” says William Rieder, curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “They are not major works of art; they are objects of fashion.” Derek Ostergard, founding Dean of the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in Decorative Arts, said of the Windsor sale, “It’s an appalling document of two persons’ insecurities.”

But decorator Mario Buatta disagrees: “Jansen represents glamour.” Just as Boudin’s furnishings have had such success in the sale room, conferring a new respectability on the decorating profession, other decorators will follow, he predicts. After all, has not Mr Buatta himself recently gone from being known as the “Prince of Chintz” to heading up the Winter Antiques Show and the highly successful Palm Beach Antiques Fair, where the grandest picture and antiques dealers in the US and Europe are queuing up to book their stands for next year?

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The rise and rise of the decorator'