The world of antiques is having another luxury moment. In October, the Royal House of Hanover dispensed with an incredible 20,000 objects during a ten-day sale held by Sotheby’s in Germany, grossing $52.5 million. Now, the vast holdings of the late Edmond and Lily Safra go on the block at Sotheby’s New York on Nov. 3-4, 2005.
The Safra treasure trove has reams of blue-chip English and French furniture by the most important cabinetmakers in history -- Thomas Chippendale and André-Charles Boulle, to name but two -- and is replete with impeccable regal provenances and dazzling quality. Think super gilt ormolu turned out during the dix-huitième siècle and intricate marquetry of rare woods, edged in tortoise shell and pewter. There in a nutshell you have the Safra taste.
Edmond and Lily Safra -- Edmond, a Swiss banking tycoon, died in a Monaco hotel fire in 1999 under mysterious circumstances that have been chronicled by Dominick Dunne and other true-crime writers -- lived in the upper echelons of style, with homes in New York, London, Geneva and Paris. Now opting to dedicate herself to her husband’s Edmond J. Safra Philanthropic Foundation, Lily Safra has thinned out her antiques to the tune of 600 lots, valued at a total of more than $38 million.
Estimates begin at a lowly $600 and skyrocket up to $7 million for a Louis XVI ebony bureau plat and cartonnier (desk with cupboards) trimmed up with ribbon-tied swags and scrolls in gleaming gilt ormolu. It’s the trophy desk of its day, attributed to Joseph Baumhauer (active in Paris 1740s-1772) and from the collection of the 1st Earl of Malmesbury, who served as envoy-extraordinary to Catherine II of Russia. In the style world, Baumhauer blazed an especially prescient trail. Like fashion designer Valentino, the Parisian ébeniste (or cabinetmaker) was known only by his first name while working by and large only on specific commissions.
For those who fancy a more lady-like desk, there’s an Anglo-Indian teak and ebony bureau cabinet intricately inlaid with engraved ivory. Dating from 1740, the example is covered with flowers, squirrels and double-headed birds. Alistair Clark, Sotheby’s English furniture expert, thinks it could go as high as $800,000.
Overall, the taste and techniques in the Safra collection are eclectic: Russian Biedermeier, German Rococo, Italian parcel gilt, Chinese crackle glaze and more. Surveying the Safra material is akin to walking through a gilt-edged tome dedicated to the ultra-decorative arts with all the right names.
So, there’s Louis-Philippe’s Sèvres porcelain dinner service; Queen Marie-Amélie’s Sèvres coffret épistolaire (a portable letter-writing desk -- the laptop computer of its day), chockablock with medallions depicting her pals Madame de Lafayette and Lady Montague; George IV’s ebony columnar pedestals by Dubois; Coco Chanel’s chinoiserie cabinet with verre églomise panels; the late J. Paul Getty’s George II alcove stools; and Marjorie Merriweather Post’s Turkish tole lanterns from her storied Mar-A-Lago (Donald Trump ditched them back in 1995).
So many of the Safra offerings are über sized, like a George IV dining room table that stretches 19 feet long and a six-foot-wide Empire fireplace mantel flanked by green granite griffins by Thomire. A set of gleaming gilt bronze soap dishes made by Parisian Art Deco master Armand Albert Rateau are the size of luncheon plates.
The accessories on hand make Louis Vuitton seem like a piker, at least when it comes to embellishments. Early on, Safra zeroed in on trinkets by Faberge, crown jeweler to the Romanovs. While she plucked up the odd jeweled Faberge parasol handle, her Faberge clocks and boxes rank as top of the line. One special example is the enameled cigarette box emblazoned in Leopold de Rothschild’s racing colors, "rep tie" stripes of blue and yellow. It’s expected to hit $400,000.
Another Faberge example, an enamel clock in royal blue and red stripes (the racing colors of King Edward VII), was originally purchased by Queen Alexandra from Faberge’s shop in London for £40 in 1909. "It was the grandest gift shop of its day," says Geoffrey Munn, who heads up the London firm Wartski Ltd., which has been selling Faberge since the 1920s. Next week, the five-and-a-half-inch-high timepiece could strike $175,000.
Why the crush for Faberge when so many style hipsters consider the bejeweled bibelots as bordering on the geriatric? "They’re artifacts from an extraordinary time and encapsulate the magical aura of the era of the Czars," says Gerald Hill, Sotheby’s Russian art specialist. With shops stretching from St. Petersburg to London, Faberge was taking phone orders back in 1909. The firm really was the first global luxury purveyor.
What’s different about this market today is the sudden participation of newly wealthy Russians, who after the 1917 Revolution dropped out of the market for close to a century. Hill estimates that half the buyers at the ultra Faberge level are Russians, with the rest Americans and Europeans.
That Slavic component is certain to fuel prices. Right now, the Russians have been spotted at auction in London and New York buying back their patrimony with a vengeance.
Still, why the taste for the over-the-top Safra look? In financial circles, their name has major-league clout and now, with spiraling profits for hedge fund managers, excess seems to be roaring back.
New York and Paris designer Juan Pablo Molyneux, well known for his lavish interiors (most recently a Russian oligarch snapped up his services for a 170,000-square-foot country house outside of Moscow) says, "That best-of-the-French-18th-century look has always been with us, while waves of certain styles like Swedish country can be very short lived."
"Even if we’re in a Gothic period, people die to have the exceptional by the great cabinetmakers," says Molyneux, speaking by telephone from Palm Beach. He believes the important examples from the Safra sale, such as the Joseph bureau plat, would look appropriate in many interiors, including minimalist ones. He will be bidding at the Safra sale, as will many a collector.
BROOK MASON is chief correspondent of Art & Antiques magazine.