ART MARKET; The sale of ten centuries

The Margraves of Baden have been big cheeses in south Germany for a thousand years. So their attic sale is bound to be sensational. Geraldine Norman reports
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The Independent Culture
LAYER upon layer of European history is wrapped around the 25,000 family possessions of the Margrave of Baden which Sotheby's is to auction in October. They have been grouped into 6,500 lots and will take 15 days to sell - making it the longest auction in living memory. The sale will be held in a marquee in the courtyard of the Neues Schloss in Baden Baden, south Germany, with five more marquees showing off the goods for sale.

Margrave Max von Baden, 61, is a first cousin of Prince Charles. His mother was the Duke of Edinburgh's sister, who spent her widowed years in Neues Schloss until her death in 1969. At the end of last year, the Margrave found himself with debts amounting to pounds 123 million. As the head of a former ruling family, he has vast possessions - castles, estates, vineyards, forests and small industries - and the banks had permitted his debts to slide upwards for 10 years or more. The recession accelerated the problem. Over the last six months, he has employed new investment advisers, sold one of his four castles, liquidated a number of industrial investments and asked Sotheby's to sell unneeded chattels.

They are hoping to get him off the hook with a scheme that combines heritage sales to the regional government of Baden Wurttemberg and an auction - which could, in combination, raise as much as pounds 60m if the German public goes as potty about the contents of the Mar-grave's attics as he and his advisers hope.

The Margrave himself, a quiet country gentleman, is keeping out of sight. For the sake of Sotheby's publicity, however, he has offered up his heir, Prince Bernhard, 25, to sit on thrones in the Neues Schloss and have his picture taken.

Heads of the house of Zahringer - the family name of the Margraves - have been big cheeses in southern Germany since the 10th century. The Holy Roman Emperor accorded them the title of Margraves of Baden in 1112; the title is equivalent to a Count, and was created under Charlemagne for those ruling over the marches at the frontiers of the Holy Roman Empire. In 1806 Napoleon turned their territory into an independent Grand Duchy, effectively a kingdom. They remained autonomous rulers until 1918, when the last Grand Duke abdicated and Baden was absorbed into Germany.

As rulers, the Margraves lived in a palace in Karlsruhe and owned some 15 other castles. Today, the family home is a castle at Salem, on Lake Constance. According to a deal struck in 1918 with the German government, 50 per cent of the Margrave's possessions became the property of the state and 50 per cent remained in the family. Several castles, including those in Karlsruhe and Mannheim, were handed over to the government but only half their contents.

The half that remained the property of the Margraves was not needed in their other homes, which were already fully furnished, so most of it was shipped to Baden Baden and stored in the attics of the Neues Schloss - where it remained gathering dust until Sotheby's started to disturb it earlier this year. Some of the porcelain is still literally black with dirt, though most of it has been washed by now.

The Neues Schloss, or "New Palace", was built by Margrave Philip II in 1573-78, redecorated with great splendour in the mid-17th century but sacked by the French in 1689. It was little used in the 18th century, but came to life again as the family's summer residence in the 19th. Grand Duke Leopold had it sumptuously redecorated in Renaissance style in 1843- 47 which is, more or less, the look it retains today.

In the 19th-century Baden Baden, whose hot springs were first discovered and commercialised by the Romans, was the favourite watering place of the crowned heads of Europe. Even Queen Victoria bought herself a house there one summer where she arranged to meet Kaiser Wilhelm I of Prussia. The ageing Kaiser was too ill to see her, but Sotheby's have found a wonderful photograph of the old man sitting in the gardens of the Neues Schloss, resting on a Minton porcelain stool and wearing a top hat; the chair he was sitting on, the Minton stool and a top hat - though presumably not the Kaiser's - are all included in the sale.

The regional government of Baden-Wurttemberg has greeted the news of the forthcoming auction with horror. (Imagine the kerfuffle here if the Duke of Devonshire announced the sale of the contents of Chats-worth.) The Margrave offered the government the entire contents of the schloss for a bargain price of pounds 40m last January, but they turned him down. The current government is a coalition of the right-wing CDU, who wanted to buy it, and the socialist SPD, who thought the money would be better spent on schools and hospitals.

A battle has raged for six months, with the SPD threatening to introduce legislation that would make any sale illegal. By patient negotiation the situation has finally been defused and a compromise reached which allows the sale to go ahead. Sotheby's representative, Christoph Graf Douglas, a German aristocrat with a conciliatory manner, is the man who has stitched it up; he also negotiated the sale of Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis' treasures with the Bavarian government in 1993 and the sale of the Prince of Fursten-berg's library to Baden-Wurttemberg for pounds 24m in 1993-94 - the biggest German heritage purchase so far.

Douglas will only reveal part of the deal he has struck with the government. The gesture by the Margrave which finally sorted things out, he says, was lending an altarpiece by Martin Schaffner (1478-1547) to the Karlsruhe Kunsthalle and giving some 200 works of art to the Landesmuseum, Baden's regional museum. On top of that, the government is buying the library for an unspecified price, some pounds 5m worth of porcelain - the best porcelain collection in private hands in Germany - and pounds 8m worth of art works of special local interest.

The government of Baden-Wurttemberg also retains an option to buy three of the most important items in the sale if they can find enough money by 15 September; if not, the pieces will be auctioned. These include a group of five panels from an altarpiece the family commissioned in the 16th century from Durer's contemporary, Bernhard Strigel, for the chapel at Salem castle. The altarpiece was taken to Karlsruhe in the 19th century and, under the 50-50 rule, the state retained the sculptural centrepiece, which is now in the Landesmuseum. Sotheby's valuation of the five panels is pounds 6.8m. It is the only really significant painting that the Margrave is selling. "The family has already sold all its best pictures," one of Sotheby's experts explained, "in Basel - in 1790!" Nevertheless, some 750 old masters and 19th-century paintings are to be sold in October. The other two items the government has an option to buy are a magnificently carved ivory clock of 1697 and an 18th-century marquetry desk by David Roentgen, the greatest German furniture maker, worth around half a million each.

Of the objects in the October sale itself, the greatest thrills are probably the 17th-century carved ivories and other so-called Kunst-kammer objects - before 1700 most royal families kept cabinets of curiosities, or Kunstkammer, including virtuoso creations of carvers and modellers. Nearly all such cabinets have been dispersed or found their way to museums.

There are also quantities of rare porcelain; the Margravine Sybilla Augusta (1675-1733) was the second most important porcelain collector in Europe; the first was Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, who funded the manufacture of porcelain at Meissen.

The 18th- and 19th-century furniture was virtually all commissioned by the family for their various residences. The exception is a small tea table with a silver-gilt top made for the bedroom of King Gustav III of Sweden in 1780; he brought it to Baden Baden when he was exiled in 1810.

It is particularly attractive that most of the material for sale was bought by the family when it was brand new. It was all carefully kept track of by their stewards; there are 35 different inventory labels on the objects for sale, the earliest inventory dating from 1666. Purchasers of many lots will be able to go and look up their possessions in the old inven-tories. Another attractive feature of the sale is that roughly one- third of the lots on offer are expected to fetch less than pounds 500.

! Sotheby's sale in Baden Baden will be held from 5-21 October, every day expect Sundays. The objects will be on exhibition every day from 30 September to 3 October

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