Heiress sells cabinet that's too big for her home - and makes £10.5m profit

The Cabinet was considered the greatest Florentine work of art of its day when it was made from ebony and precious stones in 1726. In 1990, it became the most expensive piece of furniture in the world when it fetched£8.5m at auction.

And now the so-called Badminton Cabinet has done it again, by breaking its own world record. It fetched a staggering £19m at Christie's in London yesterday.

The cabinet, made for the Beaufort family of Badminton House in Gloucestershire, was arguably the most important work of decorative art to have been commissioned by a British patron in three centuries.

So when the family decided to sell in 1990 to settle inheritance tax bills, it provoked a row that has had ramifications for Britain's museums and galleries ever since.

Campaigners were desperate to keep the piece in the UK but could not raise enough money to match a bid from Barbara Piasecka Johnson, a Polish-born art historian and widow of Seward Johnson, of the Johnson pharmaceutical company. This year, she decided to sell the 13ft-high cabinet because it was too large for her new home.

But no British museum or gallery even considered bidding this time. Acquisitions budgets which were modest by world standards in 1990 have been slashed to virtually nothing in the years since.

The successful bidder yesterday was Johan Kraeftner on behalf of Prince Hans-Adam II of Liechtenstein whose family's private art collections are housed in the Liechtenstein Museum which opened in Vienna, Austria, this year.

Dr Kraeftner, the museum's director, said they were delighted. "I tried to bid as fast as I could to secure this magnificent object for our collection. We look forward to welcoming the international public to view the Badminton Cabinet in Vienna where it will be on permanent display from spring 2005."

The cabinet was commissioned by 19-year-old Henry Somerset, the 3rd Duke of Beaufort, in Florence. Thirty craftsmen are thought to have been involved in producing the cabinet, made of ebony and decorated with precious stones including lapis lazuli, agate, red and green jasper and amethyst quartz. It then remained at Badminton House until family members decided to sell.

In Vienna, it will be shown as the centrepiece of the Liechtenstein Museum's strong collection of more than 15 pieces of pietra dura - delicate inlay work using precious stones which was a feature of Florentine workshops from the end of the 16th century.

Mark Jones, director of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which had been involved in trying to save the piece in 1990, said it was excellent news that the Badminton Cabinet would go on display to the public. "But this sale highlights once again the serious problem British institutions face raising the money to keep objects of such historical importance in this country."

Charles Cator, chairman of Christie's UK and international head of its furniture department, said the price reflected the magnificence of such a famous and admired work of art.

"Yet again the Badminton Cabinet has pushed the boundaries of the art market. The cabinet transcends the boundaries of furniture, combining architecture, sculpture and painting in pietra dura, resulting in a unique masterpiece." For the man with the hammer, Dermot Chichester, Christie's UK co-chairman, it was the most expensive lot he has ever sold. There were four bidders. The loss of the cabinet to the nation 14 years ago was highly disappointing for museums and galleries because few items that go for auction combine such unique artistic merit and strong British connections. But museum directors have virtually no money for acquisitions these days and any attempt to save the work would have required the support of a wealthy donor. This time, too, unlike last, there could be no stay of execution in the form of a temporary export ban under the so-called Waverley rules as once works have left Britain, these do not apply.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own