NEW YORK - By the time this photograph of an impossibly glamorous couple was taken at a grand society party in 1968, the Schlumberger clan had achieved parity with such families as the Rothschilds, Rockefellers and Guggenheims: that is, they had amassed astonishing wealth in business, and used it to gain world renown as collectors, patrons of the arts and leaders of high society. The man in the photograph is Pierre Schlumberger, who would be exactly 100 if he were alive today; when he was young, his father and uncle founded the multinational company that bears their name, and by the time he was an adult and joined the family business (rising to become its President), there was enough money for Pierre to enjoy the privilege of owning great artworks by Pablo Picasso and other masters of the School of Paris.
“Andy Warhol called their Paris home 'a palace . . . with great Picassos, Rothkos, Matisses.'”
The stunning woman he is gazing at with such obvious devotion is his second wife, São, who joined him in the pursuit of acquiring great art and brought the leading artists of the day into their orbit. One of those artists was Andy Warhol, who reflected a general sense of awe at the couple’s accomplishments when he once called their Paris home “a palace . . . with great Picassos, Rothkos, Matisses.” The couple, in turn, passed on their passion for art and collecting to the next generation.
During their life together, Pierre and São Schlumberger made quite a few grand philanthropic statements: for example, they gifted the Centre Pompidou with a seminal assemblage by Robert Rauschenberg and funded the historic renovation of the King’s Bedroom at Versailles. But they were hardly the only Schlumbergers benefitting the art world at the highest levels. In Houston (the company’s HQ), Pierre’s cousin Dominique de Menil and her husband John were creating one of the greatest private museums in America, while their daughter would help found the Dia Art Foundation in New York. A sister, Geneviève Seydoux, raised three sons who would establish major cultural foundations of their own.
The family tree is a veritable Who’s Who of the art world. Various siblings and cousins all acquired great masterpieces by European and American artists, doing so with a sort of friendly family competition. The de Menils famously created a chapel for Mark Rothko’s work; Pierre and São acquired a magnificent example of the Abstract Expressionist’s painting made at the height of his career. That canvas, No. 21 (Red, Brown, Black and Orange), is now being offered for sale as the centrepiece of a carefully selected group of works collected by Pierre’s branch. The grouping reflects the main artistic movements that have preoccupied the extended Schlumberger family, especially European Surrealism and its relationship to American Abstract Expressionism. Some 90 works will be sold at Sotheby’s this November, headlining its auctions of Modern and Contemporary art. Here, a few representative examples give a taste of the treasures in store.