Art market

French decorative arts apparently recession-proof

The international market absorbs the Polo, Patiño and Johnson collections in one year. Tous les Louis do well but Louis XVI best of all


New York

Sotheby’s May sales of fine eighteenth-century French furniture and decorations revealed again that this field remains one of the strongest and most recession-proof areas of the art market. In the opinion of many, the finest eighteenth-century French furniture set a standard of quality and craftsmanship that has never been equalled though much emulated, appearing in such widely divergent mutations as John Henry Belter’s high Victorian rococo revival to the sleek Art Deco refinement of Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann.

Sotheby’s sales were based on two large consignments from Jaime Ortiz-Patiño and Basia Johnson. The Patiño material was much the finer, being enshrined in a separate owner catalogue (an increasing rarity among auction houses in these budget-conscious days) (see The Art Newspaper No. 18, May 1992, p. 18). A relative novelty for this important property was that, for once, Sotheby’s did not give the consignor a guarantee, correctly judging that with material this good there was little reason to feel the sale would not do splendidly. Although estimates were attractive, they were not unrealistically underpriced: “I don’t believe in low estimates for superb things”, says Sotheby’s French furniture expert Thierry Millerand. “It’s easy to say you have a great sale if you put everything so low”. The Patiño furniture easily surpassed Sotheby’s expectations, however. Every lot sold, bringing the total to $15.8 million (£8.8 million), a record session for a French furniture sale in America.

The first half of the sale consisted mostly of good solid decorator merchandise, filled with such essentials as bras de lumière and ormolu candlesticks. Most notable among them were a Louis XVI ormolu-and-Wedgwood porcelain mounted clock thermometer and its companion barometer-thermometer attributed to Adam Weisweiler (est. $150-200,000) which sold to a telephone bidder for $250,000 (£138,900) and an amusing pair of painted jeux de loto (essentially eighteenth-century bingo cards in their holders), which sold over the telephone for $60,000 (£33,300) (est. $20-30,000). The most sumptuous of all the decorations was undoubtedly a huge Chinese Ming-dynasty celadon porcelain vase embellished with elaborate and highly wrought ormolu mounts incorporating ring-toothed lions’ heads of around 1760. Strongly estimated at $400-600,000, it survived some slow bidding to sell for $475,000 (£263,900). Of the furniture, one of the rare disappointments (if you can call it that) was the $825,000 (£458,300) sale of an important Louis XIV ormolu-mounted Boulle marquetry bureau plat, around 1710, attributed to André-Charles Boulle, that had been estimated to sell for $1-1.5 million. “If there was a problem with this piece it is that it is not unique”, said Millerand. “There are at least ten other examples of this table known, and that might well have dampened enthusiasm for it”. Additionally, says Millerand, elaborate Louis XIV furniture has a much narrower audience than later eighteenth-century styles, and those that like it may simply not have the space to accommodate such a very large piece of furniture.

It seemed that anybody could live with the small Louis XIV marquetry table, more an objet d’art than a piece of furniture. Exquisitely inlaid all over in Chinoiserie decoration in stained horn, mother-of-pearl, tortoiseshell and brass with silvered bronze mounts, it is one of only a handful of similar pieces known (the most recent example sold by Sotheby’s in December 1991 made $875,000). Although the maker and even country of origin of these pieces surprisingly remains unknown, one view holding that they are German rather than French, this uncertainty did not matter to the bidders as it sold to an anonymous private collector for $1,700,000 (£944,400).

Equally coveted were a magnificent pair of Louis XVI ormolu-mounted Boulle marquetry and Japanese lacquer commodes by Etienne Levasseur which had the added distinction of being beautiful, practical and with an eighteenth-century provenance (one of the few Patiño pieces with that distinction), made for the great connoisseur Pierre Louis-Paul Randon de Boisset. After being sold by de Boisset’s estate in 1777, they were subsequently acquired by Alexander, Tenth Duke of Hamilton, and were a highlight of the great Hamilton Palace dispersal at Christie’s in 1882. In their lavish use of Japanese lacquer coupled with a relatively restrained form they were especially attractive to contemporary taste, and they sold to London dealer Bill Redford for $1.55 million (£861,100) (est. $1-1.5 million), reputedly acting for the London steel magnate Ronald Fuhrer.

The highlight of the sale was a Louis XVI ormolu-mounted sycamore, satinwood and mahogany commode, designed by Etienne-Louis Boullée and signed by Joseph Baunhauer with extraordinary painted decoration by Jean-Louis Prevost of a still-life and bouquets of flowers, encircled by ribbon-tied laurel garlands. It is curious that painted decoration, probably the first type of decoration applied to furniture, is of the greatest rarity in eighteenth-century France, and only seven other examples are known to exist. Of them all, the Patiño commode is perhaps the finest, forming part of a three-piece suite (the other two pieces, at Waddesdon Manor and formerly in the Polo collection, have been altered) made for Nicholas Beaujon, a collector who amassed his fortune by hoarding wheat during a famine. The commode was a relatively recent Patiño purchase, having been acquired at the Deane F. Johnson sale at Christie’s, New York in 1980 for $240,000 (£133,300). Twelve years later, it went for $1.8 million (est. $1.2-1.6 million) again, reportedly, to Ronald Fuhrer.

While the following day’s mixed owner sale was also successful, it was also business as usual with greedy consignors and less than spectacular goods making for the usual ups and downs. As in the Patiño sale, decorative works of art made a strong showing. A fine pair of Louis XVI ormolu-mounted carved ivory vases (one of only seven pairs known) sold for $330,000 (£180,800) (est. $300-400,000) and two important Meissen groups previously auctioned by Sotheby’s in the great Wrightsman dispersal sold exceedingly well, both estimated at a fraction of their 1984 prices. The covered potpourri jar flanked by two rather ungainly guinea fowl, which had sold for $34,000, made $47,000 (£25,100) this time (est. $15-25,000), and the amusing ormolu-mounted table-fountain-cum-water cooler with cat tails and swans, which had brought $34,100, now made $37,500 (£20,500) (est. $15-25,000).

The furniture section was less consistent. Definitely an acquired taste was a clunky Spanish colonial gilt-metal mounted mother-of-pearl, tortoiseshell, pewter, ebonised and parcel-gilt cabinet made for a viceroy of Peru, and dating from the second half of the seventeenth century. It seemed even more awkward in the company of its finer European counterparts and was unsold at $475,000 (est. $500-700,000). Most of the troublesome lots, however, were consigned by Basia Johnson. Mrs Johnson has been a major supplier to both Sotheby’s and Christie’s this spring season, offering silver, furniture and works of art at sales both in New York and London (some lots undesignated as to their owner). While Mr Patiño may well be selling to simplify his life after he moves into his new London residence, Mrs Johnson’s reasons for selling are much more controversial, as it is generally believed that the heiress has not paid for the celebrated Badminton Cabinet which she bought at Christie’s, London, in July 1990 for a record £7.6 million ($15.2 million). In June after the export licence was finally granted (following a lengthy fund-raising campaign to keep the cabinet in Great Britain), the cabinet was still at the restorers in London. Sources reveal that while the consignor, the Duke of Beaufort, has been paid by the auction house, Christie’s has not been paid by the purchaser, and that Mrs Johnson’s flurry of consignments are to make good her final bid.

Unfortunately, many of her goods at Sotheby’s did not attract the same rapt attention as did Mr Patiño’s. Much of it was of the Louis XIV period (which has a much more limited market than Louis XVI furniture), and in contrast to the freshness of the Patiño lots, had mostly been recently bought at high prices. Dealers felt they could be choosy, passing several highly touted lots, including a Louis XIV Boulle marquetry writing table (which some believed to have been extensively altered), unsold at $325,000 (est. $400-600,000) and a set of four Louis XVI ormolu-mounted Boulle marquetry cabinets (est. $400-600,000) which failed at $250,000. Luckier fates awaited the Louis XIV Boulle marquetry console, sold to a telephone bidder under-estimate for $675,000 (£375,000) (est. $800-1.2 million), a small Louis XIV ormolu-mounted Boulle bureau plat around 1700-1710, sold to Bernard Steinitz for $850,000 (£472,200) (est. $1-1.5 million), a simple Louis XV tulipwood marquetry table à écrire by Bernard van Risamburgh, sold to Partridge for $460,000 (£255,500) (est. $400-600,000) and the skeleton of a charming Louis XVI giltwood lit à la polonaise around 1780 (est. $100-150,000), a form not often seen at auction, which went to a phone bidder for $440,000 (£244,400). The most successful of Mrs Johnson’s consignments was a large Louis XIV Savonnerie carpet of around 1670. Depicting swags of flowers interspaced between Berain-inspired cartouches and masks, it was in remarkably fine condition, its rich oranges and deep blues unfaded. Although the carpet’s original owner is still unknown, the recipient must have been highly considered, since all the Savonnerie workshops were monopolised by the King during this time for making carpets for the Louvre. As there is at present in the United States an embargo against Iranian carpets, it has been suggested that renewed attention is being given to European examples.

An Empire Aubusson pile carpet around 1810 with rewoven areas brought $270,000 (£150,000) at the Patiño sale (est. $60-80,000) and even an attractive late nineteenth-century Louis XVI style Savonnerie carpet (est. $40-60,000) brought $220,000 (£120,500). Estimated at $700-900,000, the Johnson carpet was special, and after fierce bidding sold to a New York dealer (acting for a private collector) for $1.2 million (£672,200) (underbid by Maurice Segoura, who had sold the carpet to Mrs Johnson), a world record price for a carpet at auction.

1.1 million for Johnson desk

london. Coinciding with the Grosvenor House Antiques Fair, Christie’s 11 June Important French and Continental Furniture, Carpets and Tapestries sale was guaranteed a full room, although a number of the most important lots were in fact sold on the telephone or on commission bids. Few important pieces were unsold and the overall sold percentage was 82% by value. Alistair Clarke of Christie’s furniture department expressed satisfaction that the market had held up in the light of the considerable quantity of important French furniture which has already been offered this season. He pointed to a high percentage of private buyers, willing to spend on top quality pieces while French trade purchasers were conspicuously absent due to lack of funds.

The sale was notable both in content and in consignors: more pieces from the collection of Mrs Barbara Johnson; a number of lots from the Luton Hoo Wernher family collection; from John Kluge; and sixty lots from the Meikleour Estate Trust which comprises the celebrated collection of furniture assembled in the first half of the nineteenth century by the comte de Flahaut de la Billarderie, natural son of Talleyrand, and his wife, Margaret, Baroness Keith and Nairne.

Rather neatly, the sale’s top lot, Mrs Johnson’s bureau plat by Leleu, which sold on a commission bid at £1.1. million ($2 million; estimate in excess of £750,000), had been purchased by her from Christie’s for £300,000 in 1981, where it had been consigned from Meikleour, having formed part of the original collection. Conceived in the most advanced taste of the period, the bureau is most closely comparable to a suite of furniture supplied by Leleu to the prince de Condé at the Palais Bourbon between 1772 and 1777.

Other Johnson pieces were less successful: the highly-carved Régence giltwood canapé (lot 150), part of a now-dispersed set (other pieces are in the Metropolitan, at Versailles and formerly in the Patiño collection), made £120,000 ($219,000; est. £150,000-200,000), while the magnificent Weisweiler ormolu-mounted ebony and Japanese lacquer commode à vantaux (lot 165), bought at Sotheby’s Monaco in 1983, was unsold against an estimate of £500,000-700,000. In similar materials but totally contrasting style, the Luton Hoo Louis XV ebonised kingwood and Chinese lacquer commode by Bernard II van Risamburgh (lot 73) was more successful, selling on the telephone for £600,000 ($1.09 million; est. £300,000-500,000).

Of the Meikleour property the most successful lot was the outstanding pair of Louis XVI ormolu-mounted vases of Egyptian alabaster, made for the duc d’Aumont around 1770-75 and purchased for 13,801 livres at the celebrated Aumont sale in 1782 by Louis XVI. In an elegant and scholarly catalogue entry, Christie’s included a reproduction of the relevant pages from the catalogue of the Aumont sale which lasted nine days and was preceded by nearly a month’s viewing. In the slightly less august context of yesterday’s sale they made £260,000 ($474,500) against a strong estimate of £150,000-250,000. The superb quality of the ormolu by Pierre Gouthière was undoubtedly part of the vases’ attraction, also accounting for the healthy £72,000 ($131,400; est. £25,000-35,000) paid for a pair of Louis XVI candlesticks attributed to this master (lot 72). Perhaps more curious than beautiful was the Meikleour Louis XV brass-inlaid coffre de mariage, decorated with corne verte (green stained horn), made to hold a bride’s jewels. Probably made around 1750, it was already a rather outdated design by that date. It made £62,000 ($113,150; est. £70,000-100,000). Of the sixty lots in the Meikleour property which kicked off the sale, only six mainly lesser pieces were unsold, a tribute to Christie’s cataloguing and estimates.

Without doubt the rarest and most significant item offered yesterday was the “Ashburton Cabinet”, an ormolu-mounted ivory-inlaid kingwood and parquetry bureau-cabinet by the Piedmontese sculptor and cabinet-maker Pietro Piffetti of around 1770 (see The Art Newspaper, No. 19, June 1992, p.18). The unique nature of Piffetti’s pieces, their present scarcity and the fact that the Ashburton piece was unknown and unpublished until the present sale should all have contributed to its chances, and the final figure of £700,000 ($1.27 million, to a private Italian buyer) was felt by some members of the trade to be low: “It’s a bargain: a jewel-like piece of furniture. But one for a serious collector, not a decorator”, was one London dealer’s verdict.

Just how much the London trade valued this piece has subsequently emerged. It seems that the cabinet was the subject of a £1 million ($1.8 million) pre-sale offer by London dealers Carlton Hobbs, turned down by the owners.