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|Decorative Arts Diary
by Brook S. Mason
|The heights of grandeur, the spoils of Wall Street -- magnificent furnishings collected by financier Saul Steinberg and his wife Gayfryd -- can be witnessed at Sotheby's beginning Saturday, May 20. There the Steinberg decorative arts holdings, estimated at $12 million-$14 million, are on view before they're sold at auction on May 26. The gilt furniture, the Russian silver and some of the porcelain are visually stunning. As for the prices, they are the staggering kind that make even top tier dealers aghast.
Even if furniture holds no interest for you, the Steinberg collection tells a story of the go-go '80s and just how pronounced, selective and costly taste can be. The pieces give new meaning to the word "upscale."
Rather than the fussy Louis Quinze and Seize that legions of Wall Street millionaires had collected from the '20s through the '80s, Saul Steinberg, then Reliance Holdings CEO, took a different stylistic route. He and his wife focused on George II and III furniture, with a special focus on examples with outstanding provenance.
The 293 lots were collected during the '80s when the late Mark Hampton decorated their fabled 19,000-square-foot penthouse at 740 Park Avenue in the American version of the English country house look. The only other owner of the 34-room apartment had been philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr.
"In recent years, there have been other large house sales, like those of Jacqueline Onassis and Pamela Harriman, but the Steinberg collection is of very high quality. What shines through is their outstanding English furniture. They collected the best and went for museum quality," says Sotheby's English furniture expert Peter Lang, who prepared the catalogue. Confirming the Steinberg's elevated sense of connoisseurship is the fact that a number of museums both here and abroad have already sent curators to study the material for possible purchase.
With an emphasis on richness, the Steinbergs choose carefully. For example, take what Gayfryd terms their "palace furniture," a suite of George III giltwood that had been commissioned by no less than the first Lord Clive, considered the wealthiest man in Britain. With their undulating crests centered by no less than Fortune's shell, the suite boasts both seat and backs covered in red silk damask. Consisting of two armchairs and six side chairs, the suite is expected to make $300,000-$500,000.
Then a pair of pier tables with entwined dolphins as pedestals are also giltwood. Like much of the Steinberg gilt furniture, they have been regilded. These George II tables came from Rushbrooke Hall, a Tudor mansion that was remodeled in the Palladian style during the 1730s. They are estimated to fetch $200,000-$300,000. Interestingly, the tables were purchased at Christie's New York on Jan. 20, 1995, for $189,500, so the markup is relatively meager.
Other icons of English furniture include a George III dressing table originally owned by Alderman William Beckford. The companion commode now resides in the V&A Museum in London. But it's the Steinberg's attention to detail that is so arresting. Noting that the brass mounts on their commodes needed replacing, they simply had a set recast from the matching ones in the London museum. So encrusted with brass foliage and mythical heads is this piece, that it could weigh a ton or two, believes Lang. The commode is estimated at $3 million-$4 milllion.
Unlike many of today's collectors, who are in reality acquirers, the Steinbergs studied relentlessly. "She did her homework and could recognize great pieces," recalls Lang. He cites a pair of giltwood alcove stools, which Gayfryd purchased at Sotheby's New York back in 1985 for $48,400. Recently, no less an English furniture scholar than Lucy Wood determined that the stools had been commissioned by Hugh, First Duke of Northumberland. They now carry a presale estimate of $100,000-$150,000.
While the Steinbergs entertained among furniture that English lords, and ladies once used, they applied the same exacting standards to their silver and their porcelain. An example is the pair of Russian silver soup tureens made in 1800 by Johann Eckert, who was instrumental in supplying the Russian court with all manner of salvers and samovars. Estimated at $250,000-$350,000, the tureens are restrained in style, despite the fact that each side is flanked by goat's heads linked by swags of grapevine. A pair of Russian wine coolers in a similar style can be had for only $80,000-$120,000.
Porcelain experts will vie for two Chinese Export armorial basins from 1743. With an estimate of $100,000-$150,000 each, the plates are considered the most elaborate ever commissioned by an English family. What sets them even more apart is the retention of the brilliance of color -- teal blue, vermilion, rich tobacco brown and of course, gilt. Matching them are 14 lesser plates with a total estimate of $140,000-$210,000.
Much of the rest of the porcelain is in the predictable but precious Park Avenue taste, like Cos Lettuce and sycamore leaf plates. A pair of the 1755 leaf plates is expected to hit $8,000-$12,000. Other pieces are decidedly French in taste, like Sevres biscuit figures of small children.
In addition, the Steinbergs are selling a small portion of their Renaissance bronze collection. The top lot of this material is a gilt bronze figure of Hercules supporting the celestial globe. Attributed to Vincenzo de'Rossi, this gleaming and muscular piece is estimated at $350,000-$450,000.
Hercules seems to have been a favorite of Steinberg's. He is also selling a bronze of Hercules slaying Hydra by the circle of Adriaen de Vries from the late 16th or early 17th century, which is estimated at $300,000-$500,000. "Because of the fine quality of the bronzes, there is considerable museum interest," says Lang.
Don't expect bargains. The Steinberg provenance is bound to boost prices. Dealer Richard Feigen, who has been charged with selling their 61 Old Masters paintings (valued at a total of $66 million), has already achieved significant sales at the International Fine Art Fair.
Postscript: This is by no means the final chapter is the saga of Saul and Gayfryd Steinberg. The couple is looking for an appropriate townhouse to begin a new life. They want a double-story library. "It would be fun to have 'one-grand-room' with space for lots of books and perhaps more drawings than monumental paintings," Mrs. Steinberg has said. Peter Marino has already been chosen as the designer.
BROOK S. MASON writes on the fine and decorative arts.