London summer decorative art sales review
Since the late 2000s the decorative arts departments of Christie’s and Sotheby’s have saved the finest works of art for their ‘marquee’ or landmark’ summer sale. At Christie’s, the sale is titled ‘The Exceptional Sale’ and at Sotheby’s ‘Treasures’. Christie’s have tried to export the sale model to New York and Paris with varying degrees of success, Sotheby’s aim to concentrate their efforts in London with one or two sales each year depending on the availability of objects and, presumably, vendors’ willingness to part with them. It used to be the case that owners - especially the traditional landed gentry of the UK - would form a bond with one or other of the larger auction houses, often through a personal contact. However, as that old loyalty has been eroded by the promise of financial opportunity, in pitting representatives of the auction houses against each other, the task of winning business has become harder and profit margins thinner. While the financing activities familiar to modern paintings auctions, such as the use of third-party guarantees, irrevocable bids and outright interest / ownership by the selling auction house are not unknown in decorative arts’ sales, they are less common. This is due to several reasons, including the relative lack of liquidity in the sales of decorative arts (the market is dominated by collectors and furnishers, not investors); the market for decorative arts is incredibly varied and influenced by a wide range of factors including fashion, condition of an object, the size of the market and whether it fits into an established ‘collecting’ category. The success of the one-off Exceptional / Treasures sale model is that it follows the omnium-gatherum of the Modern picture sales - on the whole gathering high value paintings into one or two sales (usually divided into pre and post-Second World War art). These accumulations of works of art into sales of important / higher value works allow auction houses to make selections of works to present to collectors and museums: it is an effective sale model and has met with interest and success from all parts of the market.
This July, the decorative arts offerings from Christie’s and Sotheby’s were interesting but neither company presented any really outstanding work of art. The sale results were wildly different, with Christie's totalling £11,214,300 and Sotheby's making just £1,728,470 (both results including 25% buyer’s premium).
Christie’s sale was made up of sixty-three lots, comprising gold boxes, silver, porcelain, tapestries, sculpture, furniture, clocks and even included prints and a huge portrait of Louis XIV, which one might ordinarily have expected to see in the Old Master Pictures sale, but was sensibly included alongside objects directly related to the King and the ‘Grand Siecle’.
It was shown at Christie’s above a remarkable giltwood table which had almost certainly been one of thirty-three table made for Louis XIVs use in the Hall of Mirrors (Galerie des Glaces) at the Chateau of Versailles. Perhaps because the table had lost its original porphyry top and was replaced with a rather insipid yellow marble top, it sold within estimate for £378,000.
The portrait of Louis XIV - recorded in the 1739 post-mortem inventory of the duc de Noailles’ hotel in the rue St Honore - was bought in an attic sale in France ‘les greniers de Mouchy’ in October 2020 and no doubt delivered a handsome profit for the vendors, realising £1,915,500 (estimate £200,000-£300,000).
With one exception, furniture either failed to sell or sold within the estimate. A superb English commode attributed to the eighteenth-century London makers William Ince & John Mayhew, just achieved £340,200 (i.e. a hammer price of £270,000 - well below the low estimate). A pairing of classic Louis XVI gilt-bronze-mounted lacquer furniture by Adam Weisweiler was unsold at £500,000-£800,000. Reputedly from the ducs de Talleyrand, it had no firm provenance before a Paris sale in 1972. An earlier, Louis XV period, gilt-bronze-mounted lacquer commode of classic type sold for £126,000, which seemed about the right price for an undistinguished, but perfectly good restored (and partially remounted) French 18th-century commode (estimate £200,000-£300,000).
A Louis XVI ‘canape veilleuse a la turque’ sold above estimate (including premium) for £126,000 - without any known provenance.
Most remarkable of all, was the sale of a beautiful Louis XVI commode ‘a la Grecque’: this type of commode is not uncommon in simple mahogany with varying degrees of gilt bronze ornamentation, but this example was made in exotic and richly figured ‘bois satine’ and boasted a royal provenance: the commode furnished the bedroom at Fontaineleau of the Dauphin, Louis Joseph, first son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette who died of tuberculosis aged seven in 1789. It was also offered from the colleciton of J E Safra, whose paintings have been gradually offered at Christie's sales - without reserve. The commode was also offered without reserve, estimated at £150,000-£250,000 it surpassed expectations to sell for a market-confidence-inducing price of £655,200. No doubt, the romance of the early ownership history, the clean and crisp design and unusual veneers, coupled with a no-reserve policy and a sensible estimate delivered healthy competition.
Sotheby’s sale was a very different sort of offering and ended up a very difficult sale. The content was good, but uneven and in some offered lots, rather optimistically estimated.
The most interesting objects were the extremely rare 17th century silver furniture which was originally owned by George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham - brought up with Charles II after his father the 1st duke of Buckingham was assassinated. Silver furniture is exceptionally rare: not only was it outrageously expensive when made, but it was fashionable in England and France for only about fifty years (approximately 1650-1700 - though in Germany the fashion persisted, and there are superb examples in Hanover and Dresden from the 1720s), finally - silver furniture was often melted down for coin, meaning very little survives today. It was clearly a great coup and a privilege for Sotheby’s to offer the table and pair of stands, which had been clearly remounted in the 19th century onto later frames. The set did not sell, and - given the quality and rarity (notwithstanding alterations and additions) - the low estimate of £600,000 seemed a sensible auction estimate, I felt that auction was probably not the right route to sale for these rare objects, which really needed proper specialist guidance: for example, a Sotheby’s member of staff was overheard describing the set as a ‘triad’. This term was never used in the 17th century for a table, pair of candlestands and a mirror, but became a lazy term to describe such an arrangement (which would have been placed against a window pier). Peter Thornton pointed out the error as long ago as 1978.
Sotheby’s had also won an interesting, if not important, group of mounted porcelains from the trustees of the Lord Swinton will trust. This group was formed in the 1890s by Samuel Cunliffe-Lister (1815-1906), 1st baron Masham of Swinton, and most did not sell, in part owing to the high estimates and also the middling quality of the 18th century gilt bronze mounts.
The best item in the group was the pair of Meissen ceramic leopards on gilt bronze platforms (lot 22) which sold for £40,640.
Sotheby’s also offered two furniture lots (consigned via an independent agent), however neither found a buyer: lot 34 was a beautiful pair of dining-room urns on pedestals, originally made for Shardeloes and sold at Christie’s in November 2003 by the late Mrs Campbell Golding when they were estimated at £50,000-£80,000 but sold for £240,450. Twenty years later they were estimated at £80,000-£120,000 and failed to find a buyer.
The second lot was a beautiful pair of giltwood mirrors of about 1720, attributed to John Belchier and made for the 1st marquess of Powis’s London house. They had never been sold, were in a beautiful state, with lightly worn but almost certainly 18th century gilding, with replacement mirror plates (sometimes considered an advantage, as some buyers dislike old mirror plates). However, the estimate of £150,000-£250,000 was probably too high and they did not sell.
Interestingly - and this may give a clue to the direction of the market today - by far the most successful offering at Sotheby's was the spectacular pair of Peruvian bureau-cabinets, veneered with small sections of mother-of-pearl and designed in an English 18th-century style but lacking their crestings: a cabinet of the same type with a pierced scrolled cresting is in the V&A. In spite of the lack of provenance (Sotheby’s noted ‘Acquired by the current owner’s mother’) the cabinets sold for £241,300, the equal top price in the sale.
The market for the best in decorative arts continues to be highly selective and is sensitive to price. As the category’s name suggests, there has always been a market for the highly decorative, often led by those clients listening to their decorators; and there is another market for traditional-style collectors seeking the best of a particular type, or another example in a series. The traditional collector has long been in decline as the children of collectors move into a different part of the art market or live in smaller houses or are simply not interested. Decoration, on the other hand, has always gone hand-in-hand with collecting the best in decorative arts, and great works of art make for the best objects to live with. In recent years spectacular, flashy objects seem to be more in demand. Yes, provenance remains important to those who value it; originality and condition too are also important, and as noticed in other parts of the art market, the top-end decorative arts market is price-sensitive but more and more we are noticing that it is the magnificent, the lavish, the spectacular, marvellous objects which are desirable.