ART MARKET / When fame is the spur to prices: Celebrity names brought the bidders to the auction rooms, reports Geraldine Norman. A clock from a punk princess, a lamp from a chanteuse and candlesticks from a couturier fetched the big sums

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE 1993-94 auction season, which drew to a close last month, has been, above all, a people season. The major dramas have played out around exotic sellers, with their admirers paying exorbitant prices for artistic mementoes. The most notable dramas surrounded Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis, Hubert de Givenchy, Barbra Streisand and a 96-year-old Chinese warlord, Zhang Xueliang - most of them temporarily strapped for cash and all delighted with the results of their sales.

The estates of two American millionaires also had bidders falling over themselves for crumbs from the connoisseurs' tables: Peter Sharp, famed for his Old Master collection, and Wendell Cherry, who favoured Impressionists and French furniture.

Overall, prices did not move significantly; it is still a buyers' market, and many of the works offered failed to sell. All the auction rooms have, however, recorded a rise in turnover this year - Sotheby's is up 19 per cent, Christie's 14 per cent, Phillips 12 per cent, and Bonhams 21 per cent. Turnover at the Paris auction rooms is up 5.5 per cent on the first six months of 1993.

For once, the results are not dominated by what happened to prices for expensive pictures, whether Impressionists or Old Masters. According to Sotheby's and Christie's, these fields have been level pegging, with Impressionist turnover slightly down on the previous year. The buoyant results have been delivered by the decorative arts, with notably strong results for English furniture, French furniture, European ceramics and Chinese works of art - especially snuff bottles, where the Chinese have started buying and prices have spiralled.

The growing numbers of private collectors who buy directly from auction has also helped to boost turnover, especially in the case of Phillips and Bonhams, whose bread-and-butter business is concentrated in furnishing antiques. Traditionally, dealers did most of the buying at auction and prices stopped at wholesale levels; nowadays, however, private buyers are bidding on furniture and pictures themselves and paying retail prices; while the success of celebrity sales is based on hundreds of admirers who are not habitues pouring into the saleroom.

The first auction sensation of the season was Sotheby's 10-day sale of surplus furnishings from the Thurn und Taxis palace, Schloss St Emmeram, in Regensburg, Germany. The 6,596 lots sold for pounds 12.9m, 60 per cent over forecast. Other princely families turned up for the sale, hoping to embellish the furnishings of their castles - the Liechtensteins, Wurttembergs and Wittelsbachs - but bidding from the wealthy bourgeoisie left them standing. A walnut wardrobe of around 1720 made three times its estimate at pounds 32,460; a French Empire hound with an ormolu clock in its mouth made six times its estimate at pounds 12,000 - and so on and on and on.

The Thurn und Taxis family is the biggest landowner in Germany. Related by a famous 19th-century marriage to the Imperial house of Habsburg, it extended Schloss St Emmeram in the 1880s until it was larger than Buckingham Palace. Then the late Prince Johannes, famed for preferring boys, married Gloria, known thereafter as the Punk Princess, and the couple's parties were spread over every colour magazine; fame brought in the buyers.

The success of Christie's Givenchy sale in Monaco - it made pounds 17.7m - was quite a different matter. The couturier had devoted the past 15 years to decorating his Paris apartment in the most perfect 18th-century taste; he preferred the Baroque magnificence of the early years of the century and had acquired many pieces of royal provenance. It was the grandest furniture sale for many years and millionaires duly turned out to buy.

Muhammed Mahdi Al-Tajir, formerly London ambassador of the United Arab Emirates and silver collector par excellence, paid Fr19.98m (pounds 2.48m) for a silver chandelier designed by William Kent for King George II in the 1730s, while a Louis XIV library table by Andre-Charles Boulle, the cabinet maker who gave his name to brass and tortoiseshell inlay, made Fr18.87m (pounds 2.34m). The sale underlined the recent rise in price for the best French furniture: a boulle bookcase made by Etienne Levasseur in the 1780s, which had been sold at auction in 1982 for pounds 130,625 made Fr11.1m (pounds 1.38m); a pair of Rococo ormolu candelabras supported by dragons, which had sold in 1986 for pounds 257,447 made Fr 5.3m (pounds 659,200).

In March Christie's sold the Art Nouveau and Art Deco furnishings of five of Barbra Streisand's houses for dollars 6.2m (pounds 4.1m); the five houses were on a dollars 15m estate in California, which she donated to a conservation institute last year - a tax-deductible gift. Her preference was broadly for quantity over quality - which gave her fans a field day - but a rare Tiffany glass cobweb lamp scored dollars 717,500 (pounds 475.166).

As it turned out, the real connoisseurs' event in the field of 20th-century decorative arts was the collection of 143 pieces of furniture, designs and drawings by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the Glasgow architect and designer, amassed over 50 years by Thomas Howarth, Professor Emeritus of Architecture at Toronto University. A 1904 ebonised writing cabinet inlaid with mother-of-pearl brought the highest auction price ever recorded for 20th-century furniture at pounds 793,500, while an oval-backed oak chair made pounds 309,500. The whole sale made pounds 2.27m.

A Sotheby's auction of Chinese paintings in Taiwan in April demonstrated that the Asian buyer is just as big a sucker for celebrity as the Westerner. Sotheby's had attempted to sell the collection anonymously but it soon leaked out that the 700-odd paintings, ranging in date from the 10th century to around 1980, had been collected by Zhang Xueliang, a famous Chinese warlord who was held under house arrest in Taiwan for almost 40 years after attempting to arrest Chiang Kai-shek in 1936 and force him to make common cause with Mao. Every lot sold, for a total of pounds 3.4m, three times Sotheby's high estimate. A Song dynasty painting of a spray of peach blossom made pounds 424,359, four times its forecast.

The widow of the American millionaire Wendell Cherry, who founded the Humana hospital group and was one of the biggest art buyers of the 1980s, made Sotheby's summer by entrusting the company with her paintings and furniture. She provided the two top picture prices: the dollars 11,662,500 (pounds 7.7m) for Klimt's Lady with a Fan and the dollars 7,592,500 (pounds 5m) for John Singer Sargent's Spanish Dancer; the artists are Austrian and American Post-Impressionists. The furnishings of the Cherrys' New York apartment - mainly French 18th century - made pounds 9.1m, including a Louis XIV boulle library table and filing cabinet at dollars 2.2m (pounds 1.45m).

In the modern art field, the best results were provided by the post-war collection of H Gates Lloyd and his wife Lallie; he was deputy director of the CIA while she helped to found the Washington Museum of Modern Art. One of David Smith's most famous sculptures, Cubi V, made dollars 4.1m (pounds 2.7m) and Mondrian's Composition No 8 dollars 5.6m (pounds 3.7m), both almost double the estimate.

The year also saw huge prices for special rarities. A 3,000-year-old Assyrian relief carving from the palace of Ashurnasirpal II at Nimrud, depicting a bearded divinity annointing a eunuch's back, which had been rediscovered under a coat of whitewash in the tuck shop of an English public school, was sold for pounds 7.7m - 10 times the estimate - to the Japanese dealer N Horiuchi; a Greek pottery water jar of the 6th century BC, decorated with a scene of Hero battling the sea monster Ketos, sold for pounds 2.2m; an Islamic bronze lion of the 11th or 12th century made pounds 2.4m; a 19ft Louis XV Savonnerie carpet, emblazoned with the royal arms of France, made pounds 1,321,500, an auction price record for any carpet; and last but not least, a blue and white porcelain dish, 37cm wide, made at the Medici factory in Florence around 1570-80, was sold at the Hotel Drouot in Paris for Fr8.8m (pounds 1.09m), setting a new price record for European porcelain. -

(Photographs omitted)

Comments