An Addiction to Collecting, an Interview with Benjamin Steinitz

An Addiction to Collecting, an Interview with Benjamin Steinitz

Sotheby's upcoming sale, Addiction | Benjamin Steinitz, opens on 17 July.
Sotheby's upcoming sale, Addiction | Benjamin Steinitz, opens on 17 July.

Laurence Mouillefarine: The style of your interior decoration is eclectic to say the least...

Benjamin Steinitz: Yes, we like to have’s a family tradition. I'm not trying to create an aesthetic shock at all costs. But it’s by juxtaposing works from different periods that one provokes a dialogue. Look over there; there is a pop painting by Tom Wesselmann, a Roman bust, Chinese cloisonné, don't you think that they have things to say to each other...?

LM: It's surprising to come across so much contemporary art in an antique dealer's home...

BS: It's true, it's everywhere. We have several paintings by Harland Miller, from his Penguin books series; we have works by Nicola L, this "Decomposed Body" rug, and this Plexiglas vase. As I get older, they have turned into memories (laughs). I met these artists in New York in the late 1980s and got to know them well. At 16-17 (the age of my eldest son), I was lucky enough to join my brother who had opened a gallery in the Meatpacking district {in New York}. It was called "Prisunic gallery". We were young; we had so many parties there! This neighborhood, once home to the slaughterhouses, which is very popular today, was, at the time, one of the toughest. In the family, we prefer not to follow trends. To think that we exhibited Harland Miller as early as 1990! Since then, he has become a star; with the support of the famous White Cube gallery, his work is now in the collections of Brad Pitt and Elton John.

LM: Why did you come back from New York?

BS: I felt that I had a feel for antiques. My father was getting close to sixty; he seemed ready to pass on what he had built himself. Once again, how lucky I was. I was able to have so many special moments with him. And he also had ambitious projects; he was always so keen for more! Very "Rothschild" in a way, he dreamed of founding Steinitz antennas throughout Europe. He sent me to Rome for a year to run a gallery there. A year of happiness. Every morning, I used to run over to visit the Vatican Museum.

LM: You worked for close to twenty years with your father, Bernard; did you share the same tastes?

BS: I am perhaps, more attracted to sculpture than my father was. However, we had such affinities that I sometimes acquire works that once passed through his hands. I have in mind a small pair of really marvelous, airy Louis XV consoles... They had been bought in an auction. In our documentation, I found an annotated catalogue that said: "Steinitz vs Patino". He had loved them before me! My father had a genius for unearthing masterpieces; I would say that my talent lies more in the mise-en-scène.

LM: In the field of antiquities, is there a period that you prefer?

BS: I love the Renaissance. But I am by my profession an inquisitive person; I can also be enthusiastic about an over the top 19th century chandelier or a ceramic vase by Gaudi - especially if the vase in question is as exceptional as this one is. There are two similar models in one of Gaudi's houses in Barcelona.

LM: So, in order for an object to seduce you, does it have to be original?

BS: I wouldn't buy a mundane vase by Dalpayrat, but a pair of vases that are monumental, with wonderful enameling, that I can't resist! More than the object itself, it's the story behind it that delights me.

LM: For example?

BS: The wooden elephant in the living room. The animal has one eye open, a funny leather cap on its head... I saw it in the shop of a dealer friend of mine. It was love at first sight. Thanks to the inscription in gold letters on the harness, HANNO FILLIAS, we discovered that King Manuel of Portugal had offered an elephant as a pet to Pope Leo X around 1520. At the time, the event had made a lasting impression on the crowds. A great popular success. This sculpture refers to it. Now I look at it differently, that big beast...

LM: Which of your other treasures comes with a prestigious pedigree?

BS: We could talk about this French commode, made circa1820. In ash burr and amaranth, a mix of both light and dark wood, with beautiful gilt-bronze, it’s very chic, don’t you think? It originally belonged to Mademoiselle Mars, a famous actress. And instantly, the piece of furniture takes on another aura! And that is not all. The commode also passed through the famous decorating firm of Maison Jansen and later stood in the castle of William Randolph Hearst in California, the press magnate, hero of the film "Citizen Kane". This is the sort of thing that gets me dreaming...

LM: After the sale of 130 lots coming from your home, won't the place seem empty?

BS: No. And I hope I don’t have to take anything back (laughs)! I'm not attached to objects, I don't feel any sort of nostalgia in parting with them, on the contrary, I'm happy with the thought that others might want them. In fact, I felt a little "settled," living among these pieces that have been with me for such a long time. I like change. I get restless, it's hereditary. The bohemian side of the Steinitz family... In 15 years, I have moved house 12 times! It's true that in the meantime, the tribe has gotten bigger... Five children - five boys - they need space!

LM: It seems that there are no exceptional pieces of 17th and 18th century furniture in your selection; isn't that your specialty?

BS: We have always chosen to offer our rarest, most beautiful finds to our clients, museums or private collectors. We are very proud of that. There has never been any question of keeping such items for ourselves. The lots that make up the Sotheby's sale come from our own collection. It's the variety and the unusual character of certain objects that give the sale its charm. Having said that, there is some neo-classical furniture that deserves to be mentioned: a cartonnier by Garnier or this elegant bureau plat by Monsigny, with its remarkable purity of line. I also have a certain weakness for the giltwood armchair, decorated with a seahorse, that is sculptural, whimsical, an Italian creation from the end of the 18th century. Today it is estimated at 15,000 to 25,000 euros. To think that less than ten years ago, before the antique furniture market was abandoned, a set of four chairs of the same model made 2.2 million francs in 1991! This is proof that the market for 18th century works offers tremendous opportunities today. We really must take advantage of that.

LM: The sale of your private collection is called "Addiction", why?

I like to buy! Is there a cure for that? Also, I'm always short of money. Everyone knows that at auctions, I find it hard to hold back. A professional once said to me "my clients all want to buy like dealers, and you act like a collector”. I took that as a compliment...

French & Continental Furniture

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