The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) is trying to raise £1.1m to buy an Italian Baroque cabinet, part of which was recently discovered in a pizzeria in York. The two parts of the piece had been separated around 1950.
In an impressive piece of detective work, a Sotheby’s specialist reassembled the ensemble, and it was sold to a European collector last December.
An export licence for the cabinet has just been deferred, until 7 June. The V&A has confirmed that it is “interested in acquiring the Roman baroque cabinet”, so the deadline for the export licence deferral is likely to be extended to 7 October. An application is likely to be made to the National Heritage Memorial Fund.
The base of the cabinet, an ornate giltwood console table, was found at the Ask pizzeria in York, in the Assembly Rooms, which it has leased since the 1990s.
In 2005 a photograph of the console was sent to the head of Sotheby’s furniture department in London, Mario Tavella, for an insurance valuation. He immediately spotted that the console was the long-lost base of a cabinet which had been kept at Sotheby’s Chiswick store for 20 years, on behalf of a London dealer. The main part of the cabinet, which sat on the console, is decorated with lapis lazuli and miniature depictions of the monuments of Rome.
Research confirmed that the cabinet had been commissioned by Pope Clement IX in 1669 from Rome cabinet maker Giacomo Herman, possibly as a diplomatic gift for a monarch. The console is not the original, but was an early replacement of around 1700-25.
It was part of a set of four cabinets, each with different decoration. One was given by Pope Innocent XI to Polish king Jan III Sobieski in 1683; it is now in the Loreto Chapel in Krakow. Two were bought for the Danish royal collection in 1767, and are in the castles of Rosenborg and Fredensborg. The fourth came to Britain in unknown circumstances, possibly as early as the 18th century; it may have been bought on a Grand Tour.
The Assembly Rooms, where the console was found, date from 1735. However, the console only seems to have arrived in the early 1950s, probably as a donation from local philanthropist Dr John Bowes Morrell when the rooms were owned by the City of York Council.
The rooms were sold to the York Conservation Trust in 2002, along with their furniture.
Research has revealed that the main part of the cabinet belonged to a Mrs Baston, from Newcastle, in the 1950s, and she sold it at Phillips in 1972. It was bought by Joseph Gordon, a London dealer, who kept it in storage.
“We believe it most likely that the console and cabinet were separated around 1950,” Mr Tavella said. They may have come from a large country house, since many collections were broken up after the war.
Once Mr Tavella had confirmed that the York and London pieces were from the same cabinet, both parties decided to reunite them and sell. The proceeds were to be split on an agreed basis (although the arrangements are not being disclosed, the upper part is much more valuable).
At Sotheby’s London on 4 December last year, the ensemble exceeded its £700,000-£1m estimate, fetching £1,084,500. The York Conservation Trust has used its share to fund the restoration of part of the contents of the Assembly Rooms, which has cost over £100,000.