A vast collection of art, furniture, silver, ceramics and jewellery long held in the private collection of the Rothschild banking dynasty is expected to sell for as much as $30m over several auctions this autumn at Christie’s New York.
The sales will mark the first dedicated auction in North America of works from the French branch of the longtime banking family. Most of the lots were acquired in the 19th century by Baron James Mayer de Rothschild—the founder of the French branch of the family—his wife, Betty, and their son Alphonse, and have remained in their descendents’ collection since.
The collection includes art acquired by the family, particularly Old Masters pictures, led by Gerrit Dou’s painting A young woman holding a hare with a boy at a window, which dates back to the 17th century and is estimated to sell for between $3m and $5m. Among the oldest items in the sale is a first-century AD Roman Sardonyx cameo portrait of the Roman emperor Claudius, which has a $200,000 to $300,000 estimate. Coincidentally, the cameo last came to auction at Christie's in 1899, when it sold for £3,750, shortly before it is believed to have entered the Rothschild collection.
“These are things that have been kept away since the end of the 19th century. And unless you knew this particular branch of the family, you wouldn't have seen them,” says Jonathan Rendell, the deputy chairman of Christie’s Americas. “It's not the type of thing that, in New York, we normally get to play with. You’re more likely to see a sale like this in Europe.”
The consignors, members of the French branch of the Rothschild family who descended from James Mayer de Rothschild, specifically wanted to hold the sale in New York, according to Christie’s. This particular branch of the family lived in the US during the Second World War, Rendell says, adding that he expects the collection “would do incredibly well anywhere”.
The sale also includes furniture, ceramics (like important Italian Renaissance maiolica), silver, tapestries and jewellery that illustrate the Rothschilds’ distinct taste, which Rendell describes as “an extraordinary combination of sumptuousness and domesticity”.
“It's living with collections, and they're meant to inform and to impress, and yet, there's also this very comfortable element to a traditional Rothschild interior,” Rendell says, adding that the family’s style was among the most influential on the US’s top art collectors, particularly Gilded Age investment banker J.P. Morgan, who was exposed to the family’s taste while on business trips to the UK with his father.
“This is the sort of thing that, 100 years ago, 150 years ago, the market would have gone crazy for. We don't get a bulk of this type of material coming up for sale anymore,” Rendell says.
The auctions will take place over several days, starting with an evening sale on 11 October, two day sales and a concurrent live auction in which some lots will start at prices as low as $100, according to Christie’s.
As for why the family is selling the collection now, Rendell believes it may be a “rationalisation” and a “generational shift” in attitude. “Not everybody lives like a 19th-century Rothschild, even the Rothschilds,” he says.