I n Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie captured the iconic train’s theatricality. No doubt the author would have enjoyed the performance in Monte Carlo when Sotheby’s sold five of its decommissioned carriages in the autumn of 1977. The sale was billed as “Carriages from the Great Trains of the Twenties” and was unlike anything collectors – or trainspotters – had seen before.
The grand international trains of the early 20th century were the meeting places of the famous and infamous. As Sotheby’s catalogue notes: “Aristocrats and diplomats, spies and adventurers, globe-trotters and writers passed each other in the long mahogany corridors as on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice or on Kufurstendam in Berlin.”
The five Art Deco carriages, from the rolling stock of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, were barrelling hotbeds of luxury and mystery: cocktail hour in the dining-car, gossip in the parlour-car and all manner of thrills in the sleeping car. The ambience was golden – interiors included inlaid panelling and upholstery by René Lalique while sleeping compartments were furnished with embossed velvet couches and carafe holders. Here was a haven for travellers riding between Paris, Rome, Istanbul and St Petersburg.
The rarified atmosphere extended to the auction, which was staged at Gare de Monte Carlo in the presence Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco (the latter elegantly arrived in a cream poplin Yves Saint Laurent suit). Before the sale the cars made a final journey from Nice to Monte Carlo.
Passengers included reporters, railway enthusiasts, potential buyers and Princess Grace’s entourage, who all enjoyed breakfast as the train picked up steam. “Waiters in starched white jackets poured café au lait from silver pots into white Limoges cups with gold monograms,” reported The New York Times. “Each table had a silver bud vase filled with red roses.”
All five carriages sold. They reflected an era of train travel lost to time, found today only in the well-thumbed pages of whodunnits – and one classic Sotheby’s catalogue.