Sotheby’s December Design Week auctions feature extraordinary turn-of-the-century property from eminent New York gallerists, Lloyd and Barbara Macklowe. Channeling her detail-driven, historic fiction novels, New York Times bestselling author M.J. Rose crafted an original narrative titled “The Collectors,” inspired by the Macklowe collection’s awe-inspiring Art Nouveau pieces.
"W hen I walk through an exhibition of antiques about to go on the auction block, I’m not looking at designs new to our generation but rather works that have survived decades – sometimes centuries – because of their style, artistry and craftsmanship. The specifics of an individual piece might be new to me, but the style has been pre-approved by the passage of time. Over a lifetime of studying art and design, I’ve seen similar works in books, museums and galleries. But once upon a time, each of these masterpieces was new, and the people who first saw them were often being exposed to styles, designs and concepts that could be challenging, controversial and sometimes even strange.
Each of the exceptional items in the Lloyd and Barbara Macklowe collection is breathtaking, which is not surprising given the Macklowes’ taste and expertise. We look at these pieces and see them as works of art, chosen to represent the best-of-the-best of these renowned artists. However, the pieces of this world-class collection once resided in a shop, studio or atelier, newly created and awaiting purchase. Like unconventional works of art created by today’s artists and artisans, some might have been met with admiration, others with surprise.
Looking at them, I can’t help but wonder what it was like to see an Ernest Bussière gourd vase or a Tiffany Studio "Laburnum" floor lamp for the first time. It was, therefore, a pleasure to reimagine some of those moments for Sotheby’s." –M.J. Rose
I magine Eugène and Posey F., a freshly married couple from New York City, on their honeymoon in Paris in April of 1895. As befitting for a member of a prominent international banking family, Eugène has booked a suite at the Ritz Hotel on Place Vendôme. While in the city of lights, they are fêted by friends and business associates. They attend the Opéra Garnier, walk in the Tuileries and visit the Louvre. They enjoy hot chocolate at Angelina and dine at Le Grand Véfour – even sitting at the same table where Napoleon dined with Josephine.
It’s at a tea given in their honor at the home of a French banker that that the newlyweds are exposed to the brand-new style of Art Nouveau through the work of Émile Gallé. The chest of drawers in the parlor is unlike any Posey has ever seen, and she is instantly drawn to the lovely silken wood, sinuous lines and whiplash curves. The curiosity is light and organic compared to the dark, heavy Victorian antiques she’s grown up with.
Upon seeing Posey’s interest, her hosts tell her about Gallé, who is as well known for his glass works as his furniture. The son of a faience and furniture manufacturer, Gallé was at the forefront of Art Nouveau. Along with Victor Prouvé, Louis Majorelle, Antonin Daum and Eugène Vallin, he helped found the École de Nancy – a group of artists, architects, art critics, and industrialists working collaboratively in the Art Nouveau style.
As a surprise for Posey, Eugène arranges for a visit to Nancy, France to meet with several of the artist there, including Louis Majorelle. He suggests they have a piece or two made for their Manhattan home, currently under construction on Fifth Avenue.
The newlyweds’ first purchase in Nancy is a vitrine created by Jacques Gruber who is both a woodworker and glass artist. Knowing the premier acquisition will set the tone for the décor of their home, Eugène is a bit apprehensive, but Posey feels a deep sympatico with the sensuous piece. She reminds her husband that they don’t need to follow the old guard. Her sense of style has always been ahead of the pack, both as a student at Miss Porter’s School and in society – much to her mother’s chagrin. Isn’t her avant-garde sensibility one of the things that attracted Eugène to her in the first place, she teases.
Eugène does in fact admire Posey’s taste and embraces her spirited collecting. While still in France they order several more pieces of furniture and lamps, china and glass. As a going-away gift, Eugène surprises his wife with a Paul Follot silver five-piece coffee service, similar to the one they’d seen during a dinner at a business associate’s home.
Posey is delighted with the set. With its elongated curves and fluidity, the design is such a fine example of Art Nouveau that she keeps it unpacked on the trip home. She asks their steward to use it to bring them coffee every day of their transatlantic journey.
Over the next few years, Posey travels back to Paris to shop for a home that would become renowned for its breathtaking style and modernity. Shortly after their second daughter is born in 1904, Posey visits Tiffany and Company to exchange two duplicate baby gifts she’d been given. While there, she sees a display of lamps produced by Louis Comfort Tiffany’s workshop. Finding them unusual and unusually beautiful, Posey is instantly taken with the unique stained glass torchieres, table lamps and chandeliers. She decides on the spot to purchase a hanging lamp for their dining room. The vibrant colors of the peony shade mesmerize her. The deep scarlets, verdant leaves, overall brilliance and luminosity please her greatly. As she leaves the emporium, she thinks about how she will reupholster the dining room chairs to match that exact shade of red.
Several years later, Eugène and Posey visit Tiffany’s store in New York to pick out a gift for Eugène’s godparent’s 25th wedding anniversary. Examining the glassworks on display, Posey is struck by an elegant gooseneck vase. The salesman explains that Mr. Tiffany based the design on 16th-century Indian silver rosewater sprinklers that he saw during his travels to the Far East. With its green-tinted, curvaceous neck and pulled-feather design, the iridescent vase seems almost too fragile and beautiful to move. But she and Eugène are assured that the gift will be delivered in one piece.
While at the store, Eugène spots another vase but doesn’t point it out to his wife. Instead he returns to Tiffany’s the following day and buys it. He plans to give it to Posey for their own anniversary the next month.
This peacock vase is another prime example of Tiffany’s Favrile glass, which he named for an Old English word meaning “handmade.” The artist’s process includes exposing molten glass to metallic vapors. When the color becomes embedded in the glass, it takes on a deep iridescence. Eugène is very excited about the gift. He and Posey had attended a gala at Tiffany’s Long Island country estate, Laurelton Hall, the summer before, and she’d been fascinated by the exotic peacocks strutting the grounds. One morning she’d even gotten up early and gone out sketching with Mr. Tiffany to catch more sightings of them. At the end of the weekend, Tiffany had gifted her a fan made of the birds’ iridescent feathers and an ivory handle.
Eugène and Posey continue to collect and are invited to many of Tiffany’s soirées, but for them, one will always stand out. In 1916 for his 68th birthday Tiffany hosts a party at his Madison Avenue studio. Like most of his galas, it is a lavish and eccentric affair with wonderful food and drink. At the end of the evening, Tiffany makes a speech that moves Posey and Eugène. They go home that night feeling that as collectors, they share the same quest as the great artist whose work graces their home.
“If I may be forgiven a word about my own work,” Tiffany proclaimed. “I would merely say that I have always striven to fix beauty in wood or stone or glass or pottery, in oil or watercolor by using whatever seemed fittest for the expression of beauty; that has been my creed, and I see no reason to change it. It seems as if the artists who place all their energies on technique have nothing left over for the more important matter — the pursuit of beauty.”
New York Times Bestseller M.J. Rose (MJRose.com) specializes in writing both fiction and non-fiction about art, antiques and jewelry. Her most recent novel, Tiffany Blues, features Laurelton Hall, and her next novel, Cartier’s Hope (Jan 2020) takes place during the ten months Pierre Cartier owned the Hope Diamond in 1910.