Collector's Passion Offers Clues to Past ; at Christie's Sale, Buyers Find Deals on 18th-Century Objects

Article excerpt

The message from the Christie's sale of Sir Albert Richardson's possessions is that there has been an irreversible decline in the taste for the aesthetics of understated elegance.

P.G. Wodehouse, writing in his light-hearted mood, would have enjoyed telling the story of Sir Albert Richardson, whose possessions were sold this week at Christie's. The collector's pursuit of 18th- and 19th-century decorative art that once graced the aristocratic residences of Britain is recounted in a preface to Christie's catalog by his grandson Simon Houfe.

Richardson, who died in 1964, had belonged to a generation of stiff upper-lipped Britons uninclined to compromise. "Life at Avenue House was spartan, he would not allow electricity or modern conveniences in the house and only with great reluctance tolerated the telephone," Mr. Houfe muses.

Richardson was an extremist in traditionalism. To quote Mr. Houfe: "The family shivered in the winter and sweltered in the summer, making it extremely difficult to keep staff." Bedfordshire, the county where Avenue House is located, in the small town of Ampthill, gets chilly in the winter.

The architectural practice that Richardson ran at the back of his house presumably accounts for his love of well-structured furniture. Columns are a recurring feature in the pieces that the collector sought out, whether in a pair of demi-lune consoles made around 1800 that brought Pounds 9,375, or about $15,000, or in the pediment of an octagonal table designed by the famous George Bullock, which rose to Pounds 73,875.

But what truly roused Richardson was reading the history of the past by tracing its objects to those who made them or commissioned them.

A pair of George III "perfume burners" in the shape of white marble urns with ormolu (gilt bronze) fittings must have overjoyed the collector. The perfume burners are so close to a sketch in Matthew Boulton's "Pattern Book" that they can be safely recognized as the work of "the pre-eminent English manufacturer of objets de luxe in the 18th century," in the words of Adrian Hume-Sayer, one of the authors of the catalog.

Orlando Rock, the international head of decorative art at Christie's, pointed out in an interview by telephone that when Richardson acquired the perfume burners in 1933 little attention was given to Boulton's work. Its true significance only came to light when Sir Nicholas Goodison published his book "Matthew Boulton" in 2002. Speaking before the sale, Mr. Rock placed the perfume burners among the top lots.

Yet on Tuesday, the pair fetched Pounds 91,875, not even half of what another pair of Boulton's perfume burners cost last December. True, this pair, which made Pounds 157,250 at Christie's London, came from the collection of "The Princess Mary, the sister of George VI, Princess Royal, Countess of Harewood."

The French Louis XVI style that inspired Boulton has been gradually falling out of favor in the last two decades, and the price difference largely reflects the premium paid nowadays for a glitzy provenance.

In a striking contrast, a George III dining room pedestal, cautiously "attributed to Thomas Chippendale," more than tripled the high estimate when it went up to Pounds 112,275. The design is in the same Neoclassical vein as the Louis XVI style perfume burners credited to Boulton. But the pedestal has a lot more going for it.

The figural motifs are the work of a supremely accomplished, albeit anonymous sculptor. Better, the laughing ram's heads projecting from the corners and the frowning masks carved halfway up the sides have an expressiveness that give the piece of furniture a Surrealist twist attuned to current tastes. What's more, the inside metallic fittings, which have been preserved instead of making room for shelves to transform the pedestal into a pier cabinet, make it a museum piece.

Sadly, few among the items amassed by Richardson benefited from such advantages, and the sale had its ups and downs. …