The biggest problem was a Japanese collector of Art Nouveau glass, who had bid on a massive scale at a sale run by Tajan in Tokyo two and a half years ago at the height of the boom but had never paid for or collected his pieces; then glass prices collapsed to half or one-third of their previous levels and Tajan could not recoup his loss by re-offering the goods. 'Why does the press always want to dig up this story?' he said. 'Most Paris auctioneers rent their office buildings. Why don't you say that I have by far the biggest turnover of all the Paris auctioneers, two-and-a-half times my nearest rival . . .' 'Who is that?' I put in. 'I can't remember. It doesn't matter. I held 150 sales last year and sent out 600,000 catalogues.'
Now he is going even bigger. He is to sell the contents of the Villa Baia dei Fiori at St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, in a five-day sale. This large, elegant dwelling belonged to His Excellence Ilhamy Hussein Pasha, who died last October at the age of 84. Hussein was a Turkish nobleman who acquired an Egyptian palace and the title of Pasha by marrying Princess Chevekiar, King Farouk's stepmother. His property in Egypt was confiscated and auctioned off when Nasser came to power. By that time he was already a widower and he retired to live in the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo where, in the manner of a character in a Henry James novel, he found an American millionairess and married for a second time.
Between 1960 and 1962 they acquired the villa at Cap Ferrat and furnished it in a style that would allow them to keep up with their neighbours - photographs of Princess Grace of Monaco and Florence Gould, another famous American heiress, were propped on a salon table when the press was allowed to visit last November. Keeping up with the neighbours required the smartest French 18th-century furniture money could buy, oodles of decorative Chinese porcelain, tapestries from Brussels, Beauvais and Gobelins, Persian carpets and plenty of silver. They also had Old Master paintings and some superb modern works; Hussein had a passion for Vlaminck and formed a great collection of Fauve paintings. All the best of the paintings have already been sold. There remains one mythological scene by Francois Boucher (now estimated at around pounds 200,000) and lots of second-rate School of Paris paintings by artists such as Vlaminck, Utrillo and Kees van Dongen. Tajan says that he expects the sales to raise Fr60m ( pounds 7.8m).
Ilhamy Hussein lived alone in all this splendour for more than 20 years; his second wife died very shortly after their marriage. When Tajan became a friend of his 10 years or so ago, the Pasha was living in complete seclusion, attended by a companion who acted as confidential secretary, male nurse and partner for a game of petanque. 'I have been there for lunch 20, 30, 40 times,' Tajan told me. 'After lunch he would take me round his fabulous treasures. He trusted me.' He recounts with relish the coup which won him the prized sale over the heads of Sotheby's and Christies.
On one of their slow-paced tours of the salons, Tajan pointed out a pair of Japanese Kakiemon porcelain vases. 'I said, 'You have wonderful vases,' and he told his companion to go and look at the inventory that the English had made - no, I cannot tell you whether it was Sotheby's or Christies. They were valued at Fr300,000 and I said they were worth Fr5m. I told him that the only comparable Kakiemon vases were in the collection of the Queen of England.'
The Pasha took him at his word. He told his companion to pack up the vases carefully and give them to Tajan to take away and sell. 'I put them in a major sale at the Hotel George V and got Fr5m for them. After that he only had confidence in me,' said Tajan. 'I was lucky. I happen to know Japanese works of art pretty well because I have a Japanese wife.'
In fact the Pasha continued to have relations with Sotheby's and Christies, besides many French auctioneers and dealers; he had been steadily selling his treasures for many years and spreading the sales widely. At today's price levels, he had probably sold around pounds 6m worth of art before he died. Tajan, however, has definitely scored a coup by securing the remainder.
The Pasha's confidence in him is clearly shared by his heirs, eight nephews and great-nephews in Turkey. The old man died on 22 October 1992; Tajan announced the forthcoming sales in November and they are to be held in March.
The very best of the furnishings and paintings will be sold on 14 March in the Sporting d'Hiver in Monte Carlo, an Edwardian palace of recreation across the square from the Casino. Then Tajan will hold a four- day sale at the Villa Baia dei Fiori itself, from 15-18 March, including everything from rare Bohemian crystal glasses to the kitchen sink.
The furnishings are all very rich and grand but there is nothing of really exceptional quality - the plums have already been sold. The pair of Regence commodes with rich gilt bronze mounts attributed to Charles Cressent, the greatest Parisian furniture maker of the early 18th century, carry the highest estimate at Fr5m-Fr6m ( pounds 650,000- pounds 780,000). They reached Cap Ferrat via England; Christies sold them for Lord Ashburton in 1950 and the Pasha must have acquired them shortly afterwards. There is a set of four silver- gilt wine coolers made in 1807 by Paul Storr, the famous London goldsmith whose heavy, ostentatious work is greatly sought after in America. They carry an estimate of Fr1.2m-Fr1.5m ( pounds 160,000- pounds 200,000). There is a Louis XVI bureau, inlaid with a Sevres porcelain plaque painted with flowers and a frieze of Wedgwood blue jasper ware, which is estimated at Fr2m-Fr3m ( pounds 260,000- pounds 390,000). These are among the stars.
Lower down the financial scale can be found a very attractive copy of one of the huge Savonnerie carpets commissioned by Louis XIV for the Louvre with an estimate of around pounds 30,000 - flash, but not original. The huge collection of turquoise glazed Chinese figures with French gilt bronze mounts are mostly 19th- century creations and carry estimates around pounds 5,000 to pounds 10,000. They are also being sold in Monte Carlo.
The house sale contains furniture estimated in the low thousands and masses of porcelain in the low hundreds, as well as an intriguing day-long sale of 'uncatalogued objects, paintings and miscellaneous items'. Decorators and the general public are going to have a field day sifting through the 1,200 lots.
Articles for sale:
A One of a pair of gilded bronze Louis XVI candelabra with classical figure, laurel garland and pearls, and a blue marble base. Estimate Fr300,000-Fr400,000 ( pounds 39,000- pounds 52,000)
B Tapestry of a scene from a country fair, early 18th century. 3.27m x 4.92m. Estimate Fr400,000-Fr500,000 ( pounds 52,000- pounds 65,000)
C Louis XV three-drawered desk in blackwood, with an ebony veneer. Fr120,000- Fr150,000 ( pounds 16,000- pounds 19,000)
D Pair of Napoleon III Sevres vases, decorated with gilded bronze figurines, on square bases with pearls and with azure. Fr50,000- Fr60,000 ( pounds 6,500- pounds 7,800)
E 15th-century Chinese celadon pot with gilded bronze. Fr100,000-Fr120,000 ( pounds 13,000- pounds 16,000)
F Louis XV couch, with gilded legs, decorated with carved flowers. Fr30,000- Fr40,000 ( pounds 3,900- pounds 5,200)
G Italian table in gilded bronze, edging decorated with carved swans, standing on three legs, top inlaid with mosaic of Roman temple, with wide green malachite border inside flowered border, early 19th century. Estimate on demand (telephone 010 331 42 61 80 07)
H Carpet inspired by those commissioned by Louis XIV for the Louvre, design includes lyres, shells. 8.05m x 5.4m. Fr250,000-Fr300,000 ( pounds 32,000- pounds 39,000)
I One of a pair of Regency bookcases with marquetry veneer, bronze ornamentation. Estimate on demand
J Oil painting, 'Remorqueur au port', by Maurice de
Vlaminck (1876-1958). Estimate Fr600,000-Fr800,000 ( pounds 78,000- pounds 100,000)
K One of a pair of rectangular 18th-century stools, probably Italian, with carved laurel leaves. Fr40,000- Fr50,000 ( pounds 5,200- pounds 6,500)
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