C ould there be a more enticing auction description than ‘Property of a Princess’? The lovely diamond ring that bears this mysterious provenance, Lot 29, is one of the more understated items in the inaugural Noble & Private Collections sale in Cologne during October. Nevertheless, it does embody the peculiar appeal of buying objects and art that once belonged to European royalty or aristocracy.
Reflecting a spectrum of history from domestic life to public image, military campaigns to religious devotion, the collections in this sale span the centuries, revealing the lifestyles of the great families of North West Europe, their connections with royalty – and their care to conserve and cherish their possessions, over generations.
“During my career, we have conducted some very large valuations for noble families and encountered over 30,000 individual pieces, originating from Antiquity and early medieval times to 30 to 50 years ago,” says Herbert Van Mierlo, Senior Director and Valuations Specialist at Sotheby’s Cologne. “For those families, all the items from a collection are an integral part of the family's tradition, their heritage and obligation, and every single piece is just as precious as next one.”
Thus this collection contains everything from hatpins and parasols, imposing portraits to miniature pistols. And while not every piece comes directly from a noble family (the art from the Schminck collection complements the sale's pieces of noble origin with suitably exceptional quality), each item has an impeccable provenance.
Whether from a named family, such as the property of Duchess Marie von Württemberg (née Princess zu Wied), or simply, the tantalising ‘Property of a Princess’, these items come with centuries of history within them.
"When we find these items, it’s almost like kissing Sleeping Beauty awake. They may have been sheltering in an attic, but now they will be brought to life again.”
For smart buyers, says Van Mierlo, that’s a big part of the appeal. “These are items that have never been on the market, or have even been public. They are pieces that were very dear and private to the families. When we find these items, it’s almost like kissing Sleeping Beauty awake. They may have been sheltering in an attic, but now they will be brought to life again.”
For example, says Van Mierlo, the 12 Ludwigsburg plates from the Coronation Service of King Wilhelm I of Württemberg (Lot 6) are unique treasures that have never before appeared on the market. Such pieces will tempt connoisseurs and experts, but also can inspire the sheer pleasure of owning items that connect one directly to a rich royal heritage.
“It has provenance, it has history," says Van Mierlo. "Perhaps everyone sometimes has a small desire to be the prince on the white horse, or the princess with the tiara!”
Another of the sale's most impressive pieces is a pair of glaciéres, or ice pails, from the distinguished Württemberg-Wied collection. These fascinating pieces are believed to have been gifted by the King of Prussia to his daughter Princess Louise of Prussia and Prince Frederik of the Netherlands, on their marriage in 1825.
“First, it’s a Royal gift from the Court of Prussia, then it was in the Dutch Royal family, and then in the Royal Württemberg family,” explains Van Mierlo. “So it has a direct triple royal provenance, which is fantastic.”
Looking deeper into this auction, we encounter a plenitude of spellbinding paintings and portraiture. One example is a uniquely interesting piece; a portrait of Matthias II soon after he was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1612. As the only known portrait of Matthias in full coronation regalia it is not only exceptionally rare but a fascinating document of power and wealth, chronicling his heraldry and including an image of the 10th century Reichskrone (the Imperial Crown, now in Vienna).
Moving from art to artillery, here's something truly exceptional - a gun-maker’s set for the Württemberg Model 1808 Infantry Rifle. This lot comprises a mahogany box containing 41 pieces of steel matrices, calibrating tools and meticulously-crafted accessories, each with their intended purpose, finely engraved in French. One of the rarest guns ever made, it's estimated that only around 5,000 were produced, most being lost during Napoleon’s disastrous Russian Campaign of 1812.
“I've never actually seen something like this in my career,” marvels Van Mierlo. “I would say this is unique and it's directly from the Württemberg family, who were the commissioners of those rifles. The actual rifles are incredibly rare, but this is the basis of those works of art. It’s fantastic.”
For all the beautiful gilt, fine porcelain and decorous portraits included in the sale the gun-maker's set shows that some of the most exciting stories can also be told through artefacts with a grittier history.