A POSSESSING PRINCESS

It's not only the British royal family that's been finding life hard. Princess Christina of the Netherlands has divorced her husband and is putting their art collection under the hammer. Geraldine Norman explains
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The Independent Culture
On November 19 and 20, Sotheby's is to sell the art collection formed by a blind princess. It sounds like a contradiction but is actually a story of extraordinary determination and courage. Princess Christina of the Netherlands, Queen Beatrix's youngest sister, was born almost completely blind. In 1975 she married a Cuban refugee called Jorge Guillermo who happened to love art. Together they travelled the world buying paintings, drawings, bronzes, ceramics and objets de vertu to furnish a magnificent nest on the outskirts of The Hague. Then, the marriage went to pieces. Last April they were divorced, and Princess Christina is selling up.

In their halcyon days the couple loved to entertain. "She could certainly see the difference between pepper and salt on the dinner table," one of her friends told me. "No one really knows how much she can see." Her mother, Queen Juliana, had German measles just before Christina was born and, apparently, blamed herself bitterly for the condition of her daughter's eyesight. In the early Sixties, the Queen turned to a faith healer called Greet Hofmans to try and restore her daughter's sight, causing a scandal in the palace. Hofmans' influence over the Queen was compared to that of the Siberian holy man, Rasputin, over the last Tsarina of Russia, the tragic Alexandra who hoped the so called "Mad Monk"could heal her haemophiliac son.

The Dutch press, on government instructions, remained silent about the affair but Der Spiegel and other foreign gossip magazines had a field day. The princess's reaction was to assert her independence. At the age of only 16, she switched to a new school of her own choice and moved out of the palace to share a flat with a friend. In fact, she had always had an independent streak. Cycling to school from the royal palace at Soesdijk she used to take great pleasure in losing the private detective who was supposed to tail her through the forest, a contemporary remembers.

Her solace and special achievement has always lain with classical music. She can play the piano and sing to a professional standard and has given many private concerts - and a few public ones. After getting a teaching degree at Groningen, she left Holland for Canada at the age of 21 to study music. She moved on to McGill University in the US and ended up in New York working as a music teacher. That was where she met Jorge Guillermo.

The son of a medical doctor, he fled Cuba in 1960 at the age of 15 and studied art history in the States. At the time he met Christina, he was a social worker in New York and more or less penniless and stateless. It was only after Prince Bernard flew him secretly into Holland in the royal plane and the Dutch government passed the so-called Christina Law to make the marriage legal that he was given American citizenship.

The Royal Family got him a job with KLM, the Dutch airline, which proved a marvellous base for collecting art. Christina also got cut-price tickets and the couple flew to anywhere they heard of art works of special interest for sale. Sotheby's director, Julien Stock, tells a story of seeing a superb bronze in Toronto, a 17th-century French cast of the Farnes Hercules, and telling Christina and Jorge about it when he flew into New York the next day. "They flew to Canada right away and bought it," he marvels. The bronze is in the sale, estimated around pounds 10,000.

The couple were married in 1975 and the only surviving bottle of wedding champagne, a magnum of Taittinger Brut 1947 with a label reading "SAR La Princesse Christina et Monsieur Jorge Guillermo le 28 Juin 1975" has been sent for sale. It's expected to sell for pounds 160 to pounds 240 - six more empty bottles with the same label will also be offered up as memorabilia.

Jorge and Christina started their married life with a large apartment in New York and it was during these years that their three children were born; Bernardo, Nicolas and Juliana.

Then, in 1984, they moved back to Holland, living in a wing of the royal palace at Soesdijk while they built themselves a new house. The house caused a lot of fuss and to-do with the Dutch conservation lobby since Queen Beatrix allowed her sister to build in the royal park at Wassenaar - the park is scheduled as a nature reserve and open to the public. Built over the foundations of an old farm, "Eikenhorst" combines modern comfort and traditional 17th-century Dutch style. It has an old-fashioned, formal garden and Jorge got into more trouble with the local council when he tried to build a fence round it.

The interior of Eikenhorst was filled with art. The hall was lined with Goltzius prints from the royal collection; there were Old Master paintings and French furniture in the drawing room; the couple's notable collection of Old Master drawings was hung throughout the house, wherever the light was low enough not to damage them, notably Christina's music room which has electric blinds; there were Persian carpets on all the floors. It is Christina's share of the contents which is now being sold. Following her divorce, she is moving back to New York - her children are at school in America. The auction will take place at Sotheby's sale room in Amsterdam.

There are to be three sessions; the first devoted to antique furnishings and works of art, the second to modern furniture and decorations and the third to Jorge's wine cellar. He was particularly fond of claret but there are wines from Italy, Spain and the Americas.

The art is very personal. Christina has always loved Italy - the Royal Family have a holiday home there - and she and Jorge collected 17th- century paintings by Dutch artists working under the influence of Italian Mannerism - a byway that does not have many followers. The star of the sale is going to be a painting of Mars courting Venus, by the Dutch Mannerist Cornelis van Haarlem. It was painted in 1604 and is considered to be one of the artist's masterpieces. The estimate is pounds 200,000 to pounds 300,000 but museum competition could drive it higher. There are another 10 pictures of the same school.

They also made a collection of 17th- and 18th-century Delftware decorated with portraits of the House of Orange - Christina's ancestors. In all, she and Jorge managed to find 35 pieces - plates, dishes and vases - with profile portraits incorporated in their design. The most frequently depicted are Prince Willem V and his wife Wilhelmina of Prussia.

The couple devoted a great deal of time and trouble to collecting memorabilia of William and Mary - the Prince of Orange and his wife who became King and Queen of England - but this collection is not to be auctioned; Christina's mother, Queen Juliana, has bought it for the royal collection and it will probably go on display at Het Loo. They are mostly Kunstkammer objects, carved ivories, bronzes, and ceramics.

The drawing room furniture is mostly French 18th century, in other words, the grandest going. It is the style traditionally preferred by collectors as an accompaniment for good Old Master paintings. The auction includes a set of four Louis XV armchairs estimated at pounds 20,000 to pounds 24,000 and a pair of magnificently carved gilt side tables - sprouting shells, foliage and flowers - which are expected to make pounds 50,000 to pounds 65,000.

For the general public, however, the sale of modern furnishings will hold much more interest. There is an earthenware dinner service from Provence, hand-painted with flowers on a pale blue ground. There are embroidered place mats, silver-plated pot-pourri vases from the bathrooms - still containing royal pot-pourri - silver-gilt cutlery, jugs and terrines in the shape of fruit and vegetables, wine coasters, and quantities of vases and lamps. It isn't quite a house contents sale - no saucepans or sheets - but Sotheby's has included everything it could, at a stretch, describe as fine modern design, in the hope that royal provenance will carry prices through the roof. Christina expects to raise something over pounds 800,000 from the sale and get the debts which she and Jorge accumulated off her back.

! Sale 19 November at 7.30pm and 20 November at 10.30am at Sotheby's, Rokin 102, Amsterdam, Netherlands. Tel: 00 3 120 5502200. There will be an exhibition of the lots from 16 to 18 November, and on 19 November. Catalogues available from Sotheby's, 34-35 New Bond Street, London W1.

! Boundary Gallery. At the end of an article entitled `Baddies with Brushes' in the Review of 20 October we printed a list of where to find "Bad Painting". The name and telephone number of the Boundary Gallery were included in error. We meant to refer to the Saatchi Gallery, 98 Boundary Road, whose telephone number is 0171 624 8299. We apologise for this mistake. We acknowledge that the Boundary Gallery, in its 10 years' existence, has always aimed to show "strong gutsy figurative art, with emphasis on originality, draughtsmanship and colour", and has never shown "Bad Painting".

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