The Badminton Cabinet, a magnificently ornate piece of furniture standing four metres high, made in Florence in the early 18th century, sold for £19,045,250 ($35.8 million) in London on 9 December. It was bought by Hans-Adam II, Prince of Liechtenstein, for the Museum of Liechtenstein in Vienna, where it will go on public show in spring next year.
The museum’s head of collections, Johan Kraeftner, snared the prize in person at Christie’s after a prolonged and tense bidding battle against an unidentified telephone bidder, represented by specialist Orlando Rock. Dr Kraeftner subsequently said that he believed New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art could have been his opponent.
The moment bidding started, it was plain that Dr Kraeftner had a large budget at his command. Two early buyers dropped out after the £8 million estimate was reached, and from then on Mr Rock’s bidder hesitated at each increase in increment while Dr Kraeftner confidently followed, at one point jumping from £11.5 million to £14 million.
After the sale, he said that the cabinet had been bought with the prince’s private money. “The piece has a wonderful history, is in perfect condition, and is the most impressive pietra dura piece of furniture in the world,” he said. “The museum already has a collection of pietra dura pieces, and we want to create a room around the cabinet,” he said.
“While I am sad that this piece is leaving Britain, it will represent this country beautifully in Vienna,” said Lanto Synge of Malletts, the 18th-century furniture dealers in London. He had put together a consortium to buy the cabinet when it was sold by the present Duke of Beaufort in 1990, but was outgunned by the baby-powder heiress Barbara Piasecka Johnson. She paid a record-breaking £8.58 million ($15 million at the time) for the cabinet, but it has since spent most of its time in storage.
The Badminton Cabinet is named after the Dukes of Beauforts’ seat, Badminton in Gloucestershire. It was commissioned by the Third Duke at the age of just 19 when he was making the Grand Tour, and it was produced in the Grand Ducal workshops of Florence between 1695 and 1732. Over 30 craftsmen in the Grand Ducal Galleria dei Lavori worked on the ebony, inlaid hardwood and ormolu cabinet, which represents a culmination of their skills. Topped with a richly gilded Beaufort coat-of-arms, the cabinet has 10 cedar-lined drawers inlaid with birds, foliage and flowers; it has panels of amethyst quartz, bold strips of lapis lazuli and red jasper, ormolu swags of flowers and chalcedony lion masks.
The Liechtenstein Museum was opened in the newly restored Liechtenstein Garden Palace in Vienna in March 2004, following an agreement between Prince Hans-Adam II and the Austrian government. They had been in dispute since World War II when the princely collection was smuggled out of Nazi Germany to the family castle in Vaduz.
The prince’s group of Old Master paintings is the world’s greatest royal collection after that of the British royal family, and the collection also comprises magnificent sculpture. Thanks to the prince’s main source of revenue, the Liechtenstein Global Trust Bank, he is also a regular buyer on the international art market.