Magazine article The Spectator

Italian Brouhaha

Magazine article The Spectator

Italian Brouhaha

Article excerpt

Only a few months ago this column was devoted to the disastrous tale of `the most valuable and most important singleowner collection of European furniture ever seen at auction', a dealer's stock-intrade. This week, I write of the spectacular success of `the largest single collection of furniture and related objects to come to auction in London this century' - the estate of `an Italian connoisseur' who also happened to be a dealer. Can the phenomenal prices and perhaps even more remarkable sale percentages - 98 per cent sold by value; 91 per cent by lot - simply be due to the fact that he was more than usually loath to part with his best pieces?

Here was a consignment of epic proportions. Every single one of Sotheby's exhibition galleries in London, not to mention every corridor and staircase, groaned under the load of over 1,300 pieces - 348 items of seat furniture, 95 tables, 32 commodes, too many rock-crystal chandeliers even to consider offering at once, silver, carpets and textiles, porcelain and faience (including 1,311 spare porcelain flowers for repairs) and decorative Old Masters.

Don Giuseppe Rossi of Turin had a particular penchant for the kinds of 18th-century interiors found in Piedmontese royal palaces -- charming, highly decorative and light-hearted. He liked his furniture painted and lacquered, or elaborately inlaid, set against Chinoiserie panels and complemented with silver-gilt mounted porcelains and porcelain-decorated gilt-metal. The majority of the Italian objects came from Piedmont, Venice or Genoa. Crucially, they were of good rather than of exceptional quality, although a few came with a royal provenance. Most of the furniture, however, was French, and the porcelain was Meissen.

That was the principal reason why the estate was offered on the international market in London rather than in Italy. Moreover, when Dott. Rossi began buying after the last war, the Italians tended to prefer walnut to arte povera paint and lacquer. They probably still do - but that has not stopped the sale causing one of the biggest political and legal auction brouhahas in recent history. There have been questions in the Italian parliament; Vittorio Sgarbi, the vitriolic celebrity politician and art historian, gave over one of his regular television rants to the row; the police are involved and the art trade is up in arms. It is all to do with how so many alleged cultural treasures had come to leave the country. …

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