Yet another Fendi, Bond Street this time

With all the hoopla associated with the sale of the grotesque and shall we say authentically arguable Salvador Mundi, one would assume the major auction houses are a beehive of activity. All I can say is, you couldn’t prove it by me.

But then, virtual activity is very much harder to gauge. We attended a sale at Sotheby’s Bond Street a couple of weeks ago, and the sale room complement consisted of an auctioneer on the podium, and half a dozen associates fielding a bank of phones, and, wait for it, four people- including myself- bidding in the room. Mind you, there were an unknown number of bidders signed on to participate virtually, which must have done the trick overall, as the lots in the sale were pretty generally taken up.

For myself, nothing substitutes for bidding in the room. One can achieve a sense of interest in the material offered, and as a prospective buyer, one can also gauge the competition and if it might be intense, one can then back away, and not risk becoming infected with auction fever.

Or so it was. Now of course, with no one in the room, and all the activity virtual, what was to my mind an exciting activity has now become something very sterile. As indeed, all of Bond Street has become. Gone are very nearly all the independent merchants, and even Sotheby’s has sublet a significant portion of its leasehold to others, witness the presence of a pair of leasing agents while we were there, discussing space availability with a couple of prospective tenants.

Fendi in EUR

I can’t help but put forth a photo showing Fendi, opposite Sotheby’s, now occupying Mallett’s old space, and one has to wonder how many Fendi outlets are actually required, in London or anywhere else. But then, international luxury branding has and continues to roll forward inexorably, continuing to displace what had made London’s Bond Street one of the pillars of the international art market. As I think about it, luxury mass market giant LVMH has very nearly taken over Bond Street, with profound prominence throughout the West End and nearby Knightsbridge, with other Fendi outlets, as well as Chanel, Givenchy, and Louis Vuitton.

The concentration of an enormous amount of capital in corporate hands has materially changed Bond Street, as it has so many other commercial venues internationally, in a nearly fascistic control of even luxury consumerism. It seems appropriate, therefore, that Fendi should have its headquarters in the Mussolini commissioned Palazzo della Civilta Italiana, placed prominently in the dictator’s master planned EUR, outside central Rome.


Villa Giulia

Villa Giulia

A couple of weeks ago, we took goddaughter Kitty Furse to see the Castellani exhibition at the Museo Nazionale Estrusco. As a sixth former, she’s nearing the end of her school career and fancies some gap year time designing jewelry, so was eager to see the use the Castellani family made of Etruscan jewelry in their designs.

Kitty Furse and ‘kneeling’ window bracket

Kitty Furse and ‘kneeling’ window bracket

We’d been to the museum before, although for reasons unknown, I’d never appreciated the design of the Villa Giulia itself, the Vignola designed renaissance palace built for Pope Julius III in the middle of the 16th century, and the home of the Etruscan museum for the past century. For myself, I’d always been in primary thrall of, of course, the remains of Roman antiquity with which the local built environment is hugely supplied, and very closely followed by a love of the Roman baroque of the counter reformation of the late 16th and 17th centuries.

Portico of Palazzo Piccolomini Bandini, Tivoli

Portico of Palazzo Piccolomini Bandini, Tivoli

I suppose the inventive, if slightly overblown, architecture of Bernini and Borromini, and my enjoyment of Bernini’s hagiographic biography written by Baldinucci, tended to occlude the comparative subtlety of Renaissance classicism. Perhaps I’ve spent too much time at St Peter’s, both without and within. Mind you, I remain a fan of the Roman baroque and stoutly maintain that, while the sale of papal indulgences might arguably have had limited effect to ameliorate time in purgatory, the resultant huge influx of lucre into Catholic Rome left a real feast for the eyes for the living.

At the Villa Giulia, I was immediately struck by Vignola’s use of rustication to define the entrance portico. The banded columns while not a motif unique to Vignola, nevertheless seemed a favorite, as he repeated this often, including, as I noticed a day or two later, the portico of the Palazzo Piccolomini Bandini in Tivoli. The why of this, however, is a mystery, and certainly bears further study.

Vasari’s nymphaem

Vasari’s nymphaeum

However, Vignola’s work parallels that of his near contemporary Serlio, and it was Serlio who authored a codification of Roman classicism, using Vitruvius as his point of departure. While it might be that Vignola fancied banded columns to connote rustication, I don’t think I am extending too far out on a limb to opine that this was much a studied and significant motif. In the two uses I’ve cited, the buildings had a close connection with the papacy, so doubtless the anthropomorphism Vitruvius and then Renaissance architects and scholars liked to attribute to the classical orders doubtless considered this as spare and sober, right and proper for princes of the church.

Villa Giulia interior colonnade- serenity in intercolumniation

Villa Giulia interior colonnade- serenity in intercolumniation

With the fairly unadorned façade, it is a surprise to see the wealth of architecture within, including a rather elaborate nymphaeum, the design attributed to Vasari. However, it is looking back from the nypmphaeum to the arched colonnade that, in my opinion, provides the most impressive arrangement. Composed of a pleasing mixture of ionic columns- the shafts themselves reused from antiquity- at ground level, centred in the middle and anchored at either end with the what might be taken as triumphal arches, the composition is at once impressive, and yet not at all forbidding.


Mallett at 40 New Bond Street- the glory years

Something we always did when walking down Bond Street was press our noses against the glass looking in to Mallett’s exquisite showroom. We rarely went in. I suppose relative to the contents and the locked door and the warder at the front, Keith and I felt ourselves the modern day equivalent of Dickensian street urchins, knowing we’d never be able to purchase anything inside, but were nevertheless inclined to see how the other half lived.

Nearly 40 years’ on from our first nose-against- plate glass, and 20 years on from our debut in the trade, we can’t help but feel wistful about the closure of Mallett, and saddened it died such a hard death. For nearly its entire existence since it began in 1865, Mallett has been the ne plus ultra in the trade in English antiques, and certainly for the bulk of the 20th century, the preferred dealer patronized by oil sheiks, international bankers, and, more recently, Russian oligarchs. If one was looking for a bargain, however, it was not to be found there. For us, Mallett’s pricing became something of a yardstick- if we had a similar item in stock, we sought to achieve 25% of Mallett’s sticker.

Expensive, yes, but location and reputation and cachet are substantial factors in pricing. As well, in the glory days in the trade in the 1950’s through the 1980’s, Mallett had a long enough purse it could acquire pieces either privately or at auction, salt them away for a few years, and then bring them to buying public as fresh to the trade, with some extraordinary pieces always on offer at the crowning event of the London season, the Grosvenor House fair, itself now only a thing of memory. Quality and condition were always Mallett’s hallmarks, even if those features might have been a bit overdone for collectors. ‘Malletized’ was the sub-rosa term used in the trade for items that might have had a bit more restoration than absolutely necessary.

Mallett no more- vacant and surplus to requirements

For many years, Mallett had existed as a public company, and while at one time fairly well capitalized, it nevertheless had to pay out a lot in salaries and occupancy for its locations on Bond Street in London and Madison Avenue in New York, and with declining revenues and changes in taste, could not skinny back its overhead expenses to match declines in revenue. Auction sales of inventory at several times in the last decade, and the sale of its leasehold on Bond Street were quickly gobbled up, and served only as very temporary stop gaps. As well, Mallett’s reputation suffered the embarrassment of having its New York director jailed on fraud charges, the effect of which, frankly, was less severe than it might have been otherwise, given that Mallett overall had by then generally hit the skids. Moving twice in five years to cheaper premises in London, and its purchase by another company clearly have made no difference, with until fairly recently the only thing remaining was the Mallett name. Even that doesn’t appear saleable- erstwhile dealer and auctioneer Mark Law failed a few weeks ago in his attempt to purchase it.

Now, saddest of all, Mallett’s final premises in Pall Mall are now vacant with a ‘To Let’ sign in the front windows. This week’s issue of The Antiques Trade Gazette quotes a terse statement from the company’s current owner Stanley Gibbons Ltd that the space is ‘surplus to requirements’.


A brief follow-on from my earlier blog, with the results from the sale of the personal effects of Vivien Leigh testimony to her lasting appeal. With a broad range of material documenting her personal life with Laurence Olivier and after, and virtually her entire career on stage and in the movies, very nearly everything sold at a significant multiple of its presale estimate.

Some noteworthy items are shown below:

John Piper’s gouache and watercolour of Notley Abbey, sold for £32,500 against a high estimate of £12,000.

 

First edition of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, sold for £30,000 against a high estimate of £9,000.

 

A pier mirror from Durham Cottage, Chelsea, sold for £60,000 against a high estimate of £1,500.

 

And, fittingly, to conclude the sale, a gold ring inscribed ‘Laurence Olivier Vivien Eternally’, for £37,500.

All these pieces acquired as keepsakes for mournfully adoring fans? Absolutely, without a doubt. And the high prices? Can one put a price on sentiment?


We’ll soon be treated to a disbursal of the effects of the extraordinary Vivien Leigh, with fine and decorative arts and personal memorabilia from her sadly short life but sensationally fruitful career. It is extraordinary to consider that she’s been gone for 50 years, but I suppose that’s a component part of the timelessness spoken of to describe a person of matchless talent.

John Piper, ‘Notley Abbey’, watercolour and gouache

The sale will include items from the homes she shared with her paramour then husband Laurence Olivier. Notley Abbey, the country home they shared, restored and decorated with help from the legendary decorator John Fowler, and their bijou London home, Durham Cottage in Chelsea.

Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier at Durham Cottage, Chelsea

Recounting these names in the context of a single paragraph sends shivers down my spine. How wonderful it would have been to be a part of the lives of these Olympian figures. Even now as a jaded man of very, very late middle age, the thinking of the confluence of these lives makes me weak in the knees.

Vivien Leigh and Warren Beatty, ‘The Roman Spring…’ or any other season!

As does the thought of a very young Warren Beatty in a late Vivien Leigh opus, ‘The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone’, but I mustn’t be too salacious, or at least not this early in the morning.

 

Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando, ‘Streetcar…’ and desire!

Or paired with a luscious Marlon Brando in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’. Yes, I promised to leave concupiscence aside, but my mind even as a superannuate sometimes runs that way.

 

Keith and I do feel an oblique connection with Miss Leigh, having sold an exquisite piece that once graced Notley Abbey, and installed there by no less than the redoubtable John Fowler. A particularly fine quality William and Mary period Japanese lacquer cabinet mounted on a giltwood stand, we didn’t at the time of acquisition realize its connection with either John Fowler or the Oliviers.

William & Mary cabinet on stand, from Stoke Edith to Beverly Hills, via Notley Abbey

Although the cabinet on stand itself was unprovenanced at the time of our acquisition, the presence of an old label to the reverse from a carver and gilder in Hereford put us on to a notion that a piece this grand must have been in a stately home- and presumably that home was near Hereford.

Stoke Edith

As these things so often happen, our acquisition of the piece coincided with the publication of John Cornforth’s Early Georgian Houses. Leafing through it, I quickly saw an old Country Life photos of the now lost manor house Stoke Edith. There beneath the wonderful decorative painting wrought by Sir James Thornhill was the cabinet on stand. Further research brought us quickly to the disbursal of it and the surviving contents following a fire that led to the eventual demolition of Stoke Edith in the 1930’s, and the cabinet’s acquisition by Colefax and Fowler for placement in Notley Abbey.

 

The great hall, Stoke Edith, with the cabinet on stand to the right

This tangential contact with Vivien Leigh hardly brings Chappell & McCullar into the ambit of the Oliviers, but it is nevertheless a wonderful anecdote to recount, and makes us all the more interested in the upcoming auction. Does this make us, pardon me, ‘star-f—ers’? No, no, never- but for those of my gentle readers who are, here’s the follow-on. We did sell the cabinet on stand to a show business celebrity for placement in her home near to Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills, in a house that was for years the residence of Merv Griffin, with a rose garden laid out by no less than Merv’s good friend Nancy Reagan. Now I suppose we’ve been caught out, so I’ll admit this business does have some tantalizing aspects.