A Porsche and a Boulle desk
“Thirty years ago, when you wanted to show you were successful, first you’d buy a Porsche, followed by a Boulle desk, but those days are long gone, and familiarity with these high-quality furnishings has been lost.” The interior designer François-Joseph Graf, who has worked on interiors for New York investor Henry Kravis and AXA’s head office in Paris, the Hôtel de la Vaupalière, is a keen connoisseur of French 18th-century furniture.
He is well aware that over the past decade the market for King Louis furniture as a means of demonstrating social status has been steadily losing steam. And yet in June 2022 there was a minor earthquake in the field: the sale of the furniture of Hubert de Givenchy. Composed of a few spectacular pieces and others which were more average, relating to the so-called classical decorative arts, the 4 sales held brought in 118.1 million euros against a total estimate of 50 million euros for 1229 lots. The label of “French elegance” that is associated with Givenchy played a big part in this, but it’s clear that these furnishings, often with sinuous shapes and delicate details featuring wooden veneers decorated with precious bronze, were once again desirable.
Chateau de Versailles
That said, the exhibition dedicated to the splendours of creation under Louis XV at Versailles due to open on 18 October may give more breadth to the phenomenon.
Hôtel Lambert: A Princely Collection
This season there are more stars from the same era appearing on the market. From 11 to 14 October Sotheby’s are staging a sale in Paris that they are calling “l’Hôtel Lambert, une collection princière” (Hôtel Lambert: A Princely Collection), which is in fact composed of furniture and art objects belonging to serial collector Hamad Al Thani, cousin of the reigning sheikh in Qatar.
Gem from the French Rococo
The townhouse, a French gem from the Rococo age and listed historical monument on the Ile Saint Louis, was bought by Ahmad Al Thani’s father back in 2007 before recently being sold again to French businessman Xavier Niel. But it was Hamad himself who made the choice of furnishings, with help from the team of French interior designer Alberto Pinto, selecting furniture and objects that were contemporary with the building.
Collection Al Thani
In France, the Qatari marked the recent museum landscape with the opening, on the Place de la Concorde, of a precious little museum, a cabinet of wonders featuring all civilizations and all eras mixed together, called the Collection Al Thani (See the report about the Collection Al Thani here). This is most likely the reason why Sotheby’s have focused their press plan deciding not to use the name of the collector but rather the place where the 1134 lots have been arranged, which make up the 6 catalogues with a total estimate of 40 to 60 million euros.
“This is the most beautiful collection of French decorative arts that has ever gone to auction,” states Mario Tavella, head of Sotheby’s Europe. The sale expert, Louis-Xavier Joseph, adds: “It’s not just one, but a multitude of collections of decorative arts. Here we find not only French 18th-century furniture but also antique jewellery, Italian majolica, Limoges enamel and antique goldsmith work too.”
“Hamad Al Thani is, along with Maryvonne Pinault, one of the biggest collectors of French 18th-century furniture,” explains François-Joseph Graf. “He is one of the rare people who has on his bedside table the inventories of the Marquis de Marigny (1). He is a cultivated and passionate buyer who values French culture. From time to time I have played the role of intermediary in finding very beautiful furnishings for the Hôtel Lambert.” While the collector seems to have kept a few exceptional pieces, several others from the same level feature in the catalogue. “You wouldn’t find the same model of chest of drawers twice at the Hôtel Lambert. He has selected the finest objects in their category, prioritizing their historical provenance,” explains Louis-Xavier Joseph.
A chest of drawers attributed to the cabinetmaker BVRB, listed as a historical monument (forbidden from leaving the country) from the time of Louis XIV is the subject of impressive workmanship: it is inlaid with tortoiseshell and brass, with an ebony veneer and decorated with bronze in the shape of shells and foliage patterns. It has an estimate of 1 million euros.
Jeanne Lanvin and Givenchy
Another chest of drawers made in around 1725, signed by Noël Gérard, with a veneer of kingwood and rosewood and an estimate of 300,000 euros once belonged to the fashion designer Jeanne Lanvin. Among the prestigious pedigrees, the catalogue contains a pair of vases measuring 87cm tall in green marble mounted on gilt bronze made in around 1770 (estimate: 250,000 euros). They were sold by the great antiques dealer from the Paris market, Maurice Segoura (1932-2013) to Hubert de Givenchy. According to François-Joseph Graf, generally speaking, in this sale the estimates are particularly low in order to attract demand.
So will the sleeping beauty of the French 18th-century decorative arts be awakened once more thanks to the Al Thani provenance? “There can be no doubt of that. Look at the sales of the Comtesse de Ribes or Robert de Balkany: 18th-century objects marked with an excellent provenance and associated with a prestigious history are subject to strong demand,” affirms Mario Tavella.
Ann and Gordon Getty
From 10 to 25 October in New York 1500 lots will be sold from the collection of Ann and Gordon Getty, with the most significant pieces assembled in the evening sale on 20 October. The total estimate of 180 million dollars corresponds to the art objects, but also to the old masters and modern artworks.
Jonathan Rendell, vice-president of Christie’s, seems very optimistic. “Right now we are discovering a new way of presenting objects. People no longer talk of minimalism but of maximalism. People look at a chair or a chest of drawers as a pure art object. This is a big moment for the market. The idea is to be mixing different pieces from different eras. This is what Ann Getty liked to do.
Her interiors expressed opulence.” Ann Getty, who died two years ago, was the wife of the musical composer Gordon Getty, better known as one of the sons of Paul Getty, the famous founder of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The couple lived in San Francisco. A pair of large English armchairs made by John Gordon in around 1758 has an estimate of 200,000 dollars. In carved and gilded wood they were made for John Spencer, who would become 1st Earl Spencer. According to Jonathan Rendell, their value might have reached 500,000 dollars a decade ago.
Form of dragons
“But the recent Givenchy sale has presented a key to return once again to the world of classical decorative art. These chairs are now regarded as sculptures.” The Getty sale also contains what are known as “girandoles”, candelabras with many branches, which up until 1993 had belonged to Hubert de Givenchy. In exuberant gilt bronze, they take the form of dragons (estimate: 800,000 dollars).
Without doubt the art market is driven by a fetishization for transporting the prestige embodied by previous owners from one object to another. But the idea of objects having an “aura” that is transmissible to the lucky buyers is operational for exceptional pieces. France is saturated with fairly average 18th-century furniture, which remains far from attracting the crowds.
(1) The Marquis de Marigny (1727-1781), brother of Madame de Pompadour, was a patron, collector and director general of the King’s Buildings between 1751 and 1773.
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