26 December, 2010

Art: First & Last

Today I dug up the old Time magazine article concerning the American Art Association-Anderson Galleries auction that took place in 1934. For quite some time I've had some photos of pieces from the historic Bonaparte-McCormick gilded-silver dinner service. Quite a bit of it has been showing up at auction lately, and I thought the pictures would make a nice visual for this fascinating article:

Unlike the slick, undignified bargaining in London's Sotheby's and Paris's Hotel Drouot, art auctions in Manhattan's American Art Association-Anderson Galleries are conducted with éclat. Dealers and bidders sit in a sombre Italianate hall as big as a small theatre while the auctioneer intones numbers from his pulpit. Across a shrewdly lit, velvet-hung stage Negro attendants parade the objects to be sold. If the objects or their owners are of sufficient importance, the sale becomes a major date in the Manhattan social calendar.
That it was on both counts for five days last week. Fully 2,000 people at a time crowded the gallery. So many socialites jammed the front rows that one eager bidder at the rear of the hall had to perch on the back of a chair with a pair of binoculars and signal his bids as he got the range. On sale were the furniture, jewelry, silverware and clothing of the late Edith Rockefeller McCormick, eccentric daughter of pious John Davison Rockefeller.
The life & times of Edith Rockefeller McCormick are Chicago history. Most colorful of the Rockefeller children, her wedding to Harvester Scion Harold McCormick in 1895 was only surpassed in national interest by the marriage of Consuelo Vanderbilt to the Duke of Marlborough the same year. In Chicago she succeeded Mrs. Potter Palmer as social arbiter, gave vast and lavish parties, backed the Chicago opera for years before Insull. She used to buy dresses six at a time, all the same model. She thought nothing of spending $25,000 for roses to bower her ballroom. Suffering from a nervous disorder in 1912, she met Psychiatrist Carl Jung in Manhattan, followed him with her family to Zurich where she lived as his pupil and assistant for eight years. Returning to Chicago in 1921, she picked up a pudgy little Swiss architect, Edwin D. Krenn, brought him home as her social escort. Efforts to make a commercial success of the Krenn real estate firm in Chicago cost her most of her fortune. She died in a small apartment in the Drake Hotel in 1932 (TIME, Sept, 5, 1932) leaving five-twelfths of her estate to Escort Krenn.


On hand to participate in the auction of her relics last week were Mrs. Edward H. Manville, Mrs. Walter P. Chrysler, Mrs. John North Willys, Actor David Warfield, many another great name. Present, too, was Muriel McCormick Hubbard to buy as many of her late mother's belongings as she could afford. She spent $60,000 and got, among other things:

¶ Two 16th Century Gothic hunting tapestries, each $6,100
¶ Diamond & sapphire bracelet . . . 4,700
¶ Diamond & pearl pendant . . . 4,100
¶ Cromwellian silver candle or
posset cup . . . 2,600
¶ Pair pearl & diamond earings . . .2,400
¶ Chinchilla wrap with silver fox collar. . 2,400
¶ Pearl ring . . . 2,300
¶ Tournai (or Oudenaarde) Gothic
millefleurs tapestry . . . 2,100
¶ George III silver wine coolers . . . 2,000
¶ Aubusson silk tapestry screen . . . .1,900
¶ Directoire carved acajou and silk
petit-point canapé 1,025
¶ Twelve George III silver plates $1,020
¶ 18 pierced & chased gilded silver
dessert plates 900
¶ Linen damask & Burano Point
de Venise lace banqueting cloth 900
¶ Three dozen drawn-thread linen dinner napkins 675
¶ Mahogany boudoir grand piano 525
¶ Crown Derby gold-decorated & hand-painted porcelain dessert service.... 455
¶ Pair embroidered linen bed sheets 85
¶ Pair embroidered linen bed sheets 57

Out of a black velvet case appeared the high spot of the jewelry sale—Mrs. McCormick's diamond necklace, a glittering plastron of 1,801 stones, 40 inches long ending in a sort of jointed breastplate of diamonds. Dealers, many of whom were unable to get in the room, shouted bids through the door, raising the price $250 at a time. A quiet, unassuming woman in galoshes who sat with her husband on a bench against the wall finally bid it in for $15,000. Said she: "It's beautiful. It all comes apart, you know, and makes lots of bracelets and brooches and things." Known to every Chicago gossip columnist was the historic Bonaparte-McCormick gilded-silver dinner service of 1,600 separate knives, forks, plates, dishes, platters, etc., weighing over 11,700 ounces. Made by Napoleon's favorite goldsmiths, Martin Guillaume Biennais and Jean Odiot, executed after the design of Architects Percier & Fontaine, the service was a wedding present from the Emperor to his sister Pauline on her marriage to Prince Gamillo Borghese. In 1892 the Borghese family sold it intact to Prince Baucina who sold it to Dealer Ercole Canessa who sold it to Mrs. McCormick for $80,000. Last week it was subdivided in 146 separate lots and sold, after a block bid of $20,000 by Mrs. Hubbard had been refused, to dozens of different owners for a total of $57,565. Unnoticed by most in the room was a plump little man who kept nervously wiping his forehead and gazing first at Auctioneer Otto Bernet, then at Mrs. Hubbard as she bid $100 at a crack with the raise of a pencil. It was Escort Edwin Krenn. "All this is breaking my heart," declared this beneficiary under the McCormick will, with a wave of his hand. "It cuts into me, you know, it cuts into me!''


What cut into him deepest was that the sale of objects valued at well over $1,000,000 brought a total of $330,617.50. Of this the gallery extracted its customary 20% for advertising, cataloging and use of the hall.


In Chicago, at her greystone Lake Shore Drive palace and in Lake Forest, Ill. at her country home, Villa Turicum, the rest of Mrs. McCormick's private belongings were to go on sale next week. Auction gapers in Chicago were discouraged by a $10 admission fee, redeemable on the first purchase.
Bear in mind, a book could be written about the Bonaparte-McCormick service. Now commonly referred to as the Borghese service, in Edith's time it was assumed that it was a gift from Napoleon to his sister Pauline when she married Prince Camillo Borghese in 1803. The problem is that there are pieces in the service with hallmarks used in Paris between 1809-1819. Regardless, Napoleon did indeed bestow the pieces to Pauline for whatever reasons, and the provenance alone is a veritable who's-who: Prince Camillo Borghese & Pauline Bonaparte, The Borghese Palace sale, Don Antonio Licata, Prince Baucina, Ercole Canessa, Edith Rockefeller McCormick, Simone de Borges, and a Hong Kong collector.

The service that Edith owned was comprised of over 500 silver-gilt objects and nearly 1000 pieces of table silver. Hence we see items on the market quite often. A year ago, our mysterious Hong Kong collector sent many items to auction, including the pair of French Empire silver-gilt pieces shown above. This lot of two alone sold for $127,000.

(Incidentally, much note has been made of Muriel's attendance at the auction, & as written in a later post.)

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