T he story of Hôtel Lambert, a truly unique hôtel particulier in Paris, is as wreathed in glamour as an ormolu mirror: aristocratic owners, sumptuous balls, celebrated visitors and exquisite interiors containing, over the centuries, some of the finest furniture and artworks in Europe. Now, the imminent sales of its latest contents – an unparalleled collection of decorative and fine arts primarily from the 17th and 18th centuries – promises to be the highlight of the autumn’s auction schedule, and every bit as fabulous as the hotel’s own history. “It is,” says Mario Tavella, Chairman of Sotheby’s Europe and France, who has run more than 70 collections in his 30 years at the auction house, “quite simply the most important sale I have ever worked on”.
From its recently restored rooms will come furniture and objets that have belonged to royalty and nobility: a silver soup tureen gifted to Count Orlov by Catherine the Great; a gilded candelabra commissioned by Marie Antoinette; and another in porcelain made for Madame de Pompadour. This extraordinary collection has been assembled over the past 20 years by His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah Al Thani and his immediate family.
“Then there are lots which have belonged to the gurus of the fashion world,” says Tavella. “Gabrielle Chanel, Christian Dior, Hubert de Givenchy... tastemakers of their generation. People who understood the importance of classical design.”
Hôtel Lambert is a jewel of baroque architecture, built between 1640 and 1644 on the eastern tip of Île Saint-Louis, the exclusive little island in the heart of Paris. The limestone property is less a piece of real estate and more an incredible piece of Parisian cultural history. The financier Jean-Baptiste Lambert and his brother Nicolas commissioned the architect Louis Le Vau to create the building, while Charles Le Brun and Eustache Le Sueur worked on the interiors. All went on to find fame as the designers of the Palace of Versailles.
A First Look at the Treasures Housed in One of Paris’ Most Historic Buildings
“It is without doubt the most beautiful private house in Paris,” says the antiques expert Alexis Kugel who, with his brother Nicolas, was closely involved in assembling the collection. “It’s exceptional for still having much of its interior decoration from the 17th century.” The Galerie d’Hercule, with its ceiling painted by Le Brun and its walls of mirror and gilding, is like a prototype for Versailles’ more famous Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors). “Sheikh Hamad and his family would host dinners there,” says Linda Pinto, who assisted her brother Alberto with the redecoration of the interiors from 2010. “It was like entering another world of extreme beauty.”
“Hôtel Lambert became a byword for the most glamorous of festivities”
Sheikh Hamad and his family are the latest in a long line of fascinating occupants, the property having recently been sold. The Marquise de Châtelet and her lover Voltaire used it for their Parisian rendezvous. The Polish Prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski chose it as his residence in exile in the mid-19th century, turning its sumptuously gilded rooms into a febrile intellectual and political hub. The painter Delacroix visited, as did the writers Honoré de Balzac and George Sand. Frédéric Chopin composed his Polonaise for a ball to be held here.
Hôtel Lambert, Une Collection Princière
But it was in the time of the Baron de Redé that Hôtel Lambert became a byword for the most glamorous of festivities. In 1956, the socialite (who was exceedingly rich, thanks to the benefaction of the Chilean multimillionaire and uber-collector Arturo López Willshaw) hosted the Bal des Têtes, at which a young and unknown Yves Saint Laurent was introduced to the couturier of the day, Christian Dior. (De Redé had commissioned the ingenu to design glittering headdresses for the event.) In 1969, he raised the bar higher with the Bal Oriental, where Brigitte Bardot, swathed in transparent black silk by Paco Rabanne, rubbed shoulders with French dukes, Joseph and Estée Lauder, Oscar de la Renta and Princess Grace of Monaco.
De Redé was also a connoisseur, who filled the house with treasures, many acquired via Alexis and Nicolas Kugel’s father Jacques. When it was bought by Guy and Marie-Hélène Rothschild in 1975, de Redé kept his apartment on its first floor, as the new owners introduced ever greater swathes of glamour.
“The Goût Rothschild, as it’s known, is not easy to define,” says Alexis Kugel. “But you could say it’s about being surrounded by masterpieces as if they were familiar objects. It’s about living in luxury, but not in an ostentatious way, though it could be overcrowded and definitely maximalist.” The recent restoration continued the tradition of the Goût Rothschild, while also interpreting it afresh.
Mario Tavella worked on the sale of the Baron de Redé’s collection upon the death of this larger-than-life figure in 2004. He describes the building at the time as being clearly unrestored. “It had a lot of chic,” he says. “And it felt wonderfully lived in. But the latest restoration has unlocked the full splendour of the place. It is like visiting one section of Versailles. These latest interiors were extremely rich. They completely suited the importance of the house.” One of the most magical, the Grand Salon, is a fantasy of blue and gold, brought to life beautifully in the natural light that fills Hôtel Lambert, and in the mesmeric glow of its chandeliers at night.
A vestibule especially treasured by fashion designer Giambattista Valli – a friend of the Sheikh and regular visitor to Hôtel Lambert – is a circular room with a round imperial micromosaic table displaying Egyptian porphyry obelisks. “Sheikh Hamad has the mind and the eyes of a falcon,” says the designer. “And he is passionate about beauty first and foremost. He is driven by a curiosity which is backed up by incredible knowledge.”
Indeed, as Nicolas Kugel says, “It takes years to find objects of this quality – Limoges enamels, German silver, Renaissance jewelry – and here you have work of the very finest calibre, created for the elite of the time.” The Boulle furniture, made in the 18th century by one of France’s greatest craftsmen, is the best of its kind. “I don’t think it ever looked more beautiful than recently, when it was placed in the Galerie d’Hercule,” says Kugel.
Among collectors, there seems to be a newly emerging taste for such objets d’art and furniture whose real value is not only economic, but is also allied to its history and its cultural resonance. Today, many acquire across categories, from antiquities to contemporary. There is a renewed enthusiasm for exuberant homes, too. These auctions of works from Hôtel Lambert, taking place in Paris across four days, are a celebration of “the most precious details”, says Tavella. Details as wondrous as Hôtel Lambert itself and its extraordinary past.
(Banner image: The Kunstkammer at Hôtel Lambert, featuring the J.M. Sert screen, which belonged to Coco Chanel)