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Artful Living | At Auction: Christie's Sells a Collection of Rothschild Treasures

Photography provided by Christie’s

It’s known as le goût Rothschild (the Rothschild taste) — an exceedingly extravagant style of interior design with damask-draped walls, gilded ceilings and old master paintings aplenty. A private museum of sorts. So influential was this 19th century European look that elite American families like the Astors and Vanderbilts clamored to replicate it in their gilded-age mansions.

“The Rothschild taste involves the massing of works of art in a domestic interior,” Christie’s Americas Deputy Chairman Jonathan Rendell tells us. “The objects serve a dual purpose: to demonstrate an educational level and a taste of the highest order. In addition, the ‘living museum’ serves to slightly intimidate guests.”

Artful Living | At Auction: Christie's Sells a Collection of Rothschild Treasures

Indeed, a tinge of intimidation was in the auction room in New York City when Christie’s recently sold a once-in-a-lifetime assortment of Rothschild treasures. A modern-day branch of the family in France decided to part with some coveted possessions that had been installed at the Château de Ferrières outside Paris and the Rothschild townhouse on Rue Saint-Florentin in the heart of the city.

Well-heeled bidders packed into the sales suite, deftly competing with global collectors online and on the phone for three live auctions that set records. Combined with a separate online sale, Christie’s took in more than $62 million with bidders hailing from some 40 nations — elite numbers for an elite auction.

Artful Living | At Auction: Christie's Sells a Collection of Rothschild Treasures

Of course, these were not run-of-the mill objects on the block but rather museum-quality pieces, with many dating back to the Renaissance and Baroque periods — golden ages for collecting. That’s why Christie’s packed up the top lots and sent them on a worldwide tour. Elaborate viewing vignettes were set up in London, Hong Kong and New York City, all to tempt the world’s most astute connoisseurs.

One of the most coveted treasures was a Dutch silver-gilt mounted Nautilus cup circa 1607, an aesthetic marvel with its stylized monster’s head unfurling across the top. In brisk bidding, it sold for $1.5 million, more than 10 times the early estimate. Christie’s revealed after the sale that the stellar piece had been purchased by the Cleveland Museum of Art. “The nautilus shell cup is fascinating in that it is a natural wonder brought halfway around the world on spice trading ships as well as for its extraordinary mannerist mount — a real wunderkammer object,” Rendell explains.

Artful Living | At Auction: Christie's Sells a Collection of Rothschild Treasures

Design devotees were smitten with the exceptional furniture on offer, including a 17th century Italian ormolu-mounted pietra dura and ebony cabinet-on-stand, a tour de force in this art of “painting in stones.” Here, intricate inlaid panels showcased fully sculpted mosaics of fruit and flowers. Built to impress, the piece brought in $856,000. “The rich decoration combined with exotic woods exudes sophistication,” Rendell effuses.

Meanwhile, an Italian maiolica charger circa 1541 delighted with its astonishingly lifelike depiction of the storming of La Goletta, a seemingly impregnable fortress in Tunisia. Showing soldiers on ladders and climbing towers, this exquisitely detailed work went for $819,000, twice its estimate. “The charger really does give you history on a plate — a general, an emperor and a sultan all rolled up together,” Rendell extols.

Artful Living | At Auction: Christie's Sells a Collection of Rothschild Treasures

Finally, one of the smallest objects in the sale garnered some of the greatest attention: a first century AD Roman cameo portrait of Emperor Claudius. Sculpted in sardonyx with an earthy glow, it features rich layers of orange, brown and white. Capturing the attention of determined bidders from around the world, the cameo brought in $2.1 million, seven times the early estimate. It serves as resounding proof that the discernment of le goût Rothschild continues to dazzle even today.

Read this article as it appears in the magazine.

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