Reports of the death of a taste for the decorative arts, to paraphrase Mark Twain, have been greatly exaggerated, to judge by recent sales in New York and London. These proved that fields often written off as passé and over-the-top—including silver, silver-gilt, cloisonné, porcelain and painted enamels—can still perform strongly in the saleroom.
Each sale boasted a great provenance, fresh-to-the-market condition and high quality, all of which was eagerly sought by private American buyers. They found themselves pitted, in certain categories, against new competitors in the form of two powerful entrants to the art market: Russians and mainland Chinese. Their taste can run to the highly elaborate as they flaunt their newly acquired wealth, just as Middle Eastern buyers have long loved this fashion. The result is that prices were forced to sometimes astonishing levels.
Gilding the lily:the Love Collection
On 19 and 20 October, Christie’s sold property from the collection of C. Ruxton and Audrey Love. The material was highly ornate, colourful and in many cases enormous, and included vast silver centrepieces, swathes of silver-gilt, Chinese works of art and cloisonné enamels. This was Park Avenue taste at its most elaborate, light years away from today’s trendy minimalism. The sale raised $22.5 million (£12.5 million), well over pre-sale expectations of $9.8/14.9 million, it was 99% sold by lot, and nine of the top 10 lots were scooped up by private collectors.
The Russian items did particularly well and one piece saw a tense bidding battle. The jewelled and gold Russian Field Marshall’s baton was the only surviving example dating from the 19th century. A Russian oligarch, on the telephone, tried to buy it to present to the Hermitage museum. However bidding soared far over the $100/150,000 estimate and he dropped out at $400,000. The final price of $903,500 (£501,944) was paid by an unidentified bidder who might, according to one source, be Russia’s richest man, Roman Abramovich.
Deep-pocketed private buyers were on hand to scoop up the Love silver and silver gilt. The Duke of York centrepiece, a George IV silver gilt candelabrum formed as Hercules slaying the Hydra by Edward Farrell sold for $791,500 (£439,722; est. $800,000/1.2 million) to a European collector. Private American buyers bought six of the top 10 lots, including a pair of Edward Farrell silver gilt six-light candelabra, from about 1818, for $388,300 (£215,722; est.$150/200,000). A private Asian buyer paid a four-times estimate $1.23 million (£688,611) for a massive pair of Qianlong period cloisonné braziers, and Asian buyers mopped up eight of the top 10 lots in this section of the sale, sometimes pushing prices to 10 times estimate to get their prizes. Five of the top 10 prices were given for cloisonné enamel pieces.
Russian buying at Agnelli sale
Then on 23 October, Sotheby’s auctioned the contents of Marella Agnelli’s Manhattan duplex. The sale showed that the market for French 18th-century furniture is still alive, given the right material; the sale made over $14 million (£7.8 million, presale estimate $7/10 million). The saleroom was packed with top advisors, decorators and dealers including Thierry Millerand, Tony Ingrao and Mikael Kraemer.
Paris advisor Jay Iselin took the top lot, a JF Leleu bureau plat, about 1775, for a within-estimate $3,816,000 (£2.08 million). A French bronze roundel marking the French victory at the Battle of St Gothard, one of 12, of which five are already in the Louvre, went to the Paris trade for three times estimate, $2.8 million (£1.53 million).
The porcelain was hotly contested. A pair of Naples monteiths (est. $100/150,000) was bought for $187,200 (£336,960) by the Ministry of Culture of Spain. They had come from the collection of King Carlos III of Spain.
Russians again flexed their bidding muscles when the Russian Imperial porcelain came on the block. Newly rich Russians fought to reclaim their heritage and took home more than 50% of the porcelain, as well as Russian Neoclassical furniture. A set of a dozen dessert plates from the Kremlin service, made in the Imperial Porcelain Factory, St Petersburg, in the reign of Nicholas I (1825-55) sold for $76,000 (est. $14/18,000). “Usually a single plate brings $2,000”, said Gerard Hill, Sotheby’s Russian works of art specialist. Only two lots in the sale failed to find buyers.
Silver shone at Jeffords sale
A week later, on 28 and 29 October, Sotheby’s sold the estate of Mr and Mrs Walter M. Jeffords. The collection dated back two generations and was full of the trappings of WASP wealth: horse pictures, silver and gold racing trophies and solid Americana, as well as early American silver.
Again, silver did well. The Winterthur Museum bought the top lot: a 1740 Philadelphia tall case clock for $1,688,000 (£921,347, est. $600,000/1 million) and also bought a 1740 Boston silver punch bowl for $428,000 (£233,612, est. $250/350,000).
London: cloisonné comes back
Chinese cloisonné was strong in London, where the most interesting auction during Asia Week was held at Christie’s. The porcelains and enamels in the sale were all collected by Alfred Morrison and contained exceptionally fine Qing examples, which are avidly sought by mainland Chinese buyers.
The top lot was a Qing dynasty Beijing enamel famille rose censer which sold for £811,650 ($1.5 million), eight times estimate, and went to a telephone bidder. The London dealer Roger Keverne bought a Qianlong cloisonné enamel vessel and cover, xu, for £111,650. This was 10 times estimate, and many other pieces performed as well. The sale raised over £5 million against pre-sale expectations of up to £1 million. Afterwards, Mr Keverne said, “porcelain and painted enamel is again today’s taste, and these pieces had great provenance, they had come from an Imperial palace in Beijing”.
As a pointer to the revival of interest in cloisonné, Mr Keverne recently sold four pieces of cloisonné enamel from his gallery during Asia Week; two went to British buyers, one to an American and and one to a Chinese buyer.
Originally appeared in the Art Newspaper as 'Decorative arts'