2020 marks a decade since the first Treasures sale and to celebrate ten editions, Sotheby’s recently published a commemorative book, to highlight the extraordinary works sold. Preceded by an essay by Prof. Alvar Gonzalez-Palacios, this selection is divided in to five themes that have shaped the sales throughout the years: Royal and Imperial Patronage, British Country House Collecting, Museum Acquisitions, The Rothschild Dynasty, and Courtly Taste.
Below, Mario Tavella introduces the book, and six treasures that have made history at Sotheby's.
T he search for the unique and extraordinary has been a constant in the history of patronage and collecting and when we decided to establish the Treasures sale in 2010 – as an event focused on quality and rarity, within the fields of Furniture, Decorative Arts, Sculpture and Works of Art – we believed that we were answering a call from the market.
Some magnificent works of art were often lost in catalogues with hundreds of other works and needed a platform where they could be presented with the importance and dignity they deserved. We thus proceeded with a careful curation of museum quality works, each stunningly photographed, and with thoroughly researched essays reflecting their historical importance, all of which always culminated in beautiful catalogues and exhibitions preceding the actual auctions.
Many collectors and families were waiting for a stage of this nature to decide selling some of their precious heirlooms. Most of them shared our passion for the objects, understood our vision and decided to part with them because they realized the exceptional care and broad exposure their works would finally receive.
If Treasures has answered a call – then maybe more of a whisper – this sale series has also shaped and developed the market we see today. Ten editions have now taken place and, with this beautiful book, we take the opportunity to celebrate some of the extraordinary works Sotheby’s has sold in the Treasures sales.
"To the former owners of the Treasures, we thank you for trusting us with these superb works of art, many of them so close to your hearts and to the history of your family."
We would like to thank Prof. Alvar González-Palacios who, through his groundbreaking research on a multitude of subjects of Italian Decorative Arts, Sculpture, Collecting and Patronage has had a huge impact on Collecting during the past three decades. It is therefore a great privilege, and deeply appropriate, to have his essay opening the book.
To the former owners of the Treasures, we thank you for trusting us with these superb works of art, many of them so close to your hearts and to the history of your family. To the collectors and institutions who are now the proud custodians of these Treasures, we hope you will continue to not only take great pleasure, but also to promote the great beauty and knowledge that can be drawn from them.
The Brandenburg Stag
Unlike the majority of animal drinking cups of the 17th century, this stag represents a real creature. It was an extraordinary specimen with 66 points to its antlers. On 18 September 1696 the animal was shot by Friedrich III Elector of Brandenburg (1657-1713) near the village of Sauen, in the district of Briesen, just to the west of Frankfurt-an-der Oder.
A stone monument, thought to have been designed by Andreas Schlüter, sculptor, architect and master of works to the electoral and royal court of Brandenburg/Prussia, marks the spot. It was he, too, who probably provided a design or model for the cup; both monument and cup bear the same inscription recording the events of that day. A vivid account has been left by Bartholmäus Fritsch, a local woodsman, who remembered the excitement when the Elector and his court descended on the Jacobsdorfer Heide, to find the stag whose reputation had reached Berlin.
It undoubtedly had extraordinary antlers but in the eyes of the people who made their living in the sacred forests, the animal was also supernatural; it was said that it was accompanied by a white lady or forest fairy on a white horse, and only the Elector was sufficiently noble to kill such an extraordinary beast.
Napoleon’s Pistols for the Roi De Rome
These superb pistols were made by Jean Le Page, celebrated gunsmith to King Louis
XVI, Emperor Napoléon I, and King Louis XVIII. Conceived for Napoléon’s son the
Roi de Rome, they are adorned with Napoleonic imperial symbolism, including the
Emperor’s personal cipher, the capitalised N, the imperial eagle, the thunderbolt, and
Significantly, they are inlaid in gold with the emblem of the Italian Order of
the Iron Crown, of which the Roi de Rome was proclaimed a Grand Cross Knight at
his birth. Dated January 1814, their genesis coincides with Napoléon’s final meeting
with his beloved son (then aged three), which took place on the 24th day of that month.
The superlative quality of the pistols, encrusted and inlaid with gold, together with
their symbolism and dating, designates them as an important Imperial gift.
They were probably commissioned to celebrate L’Aiglon’s third birthday on 20 March 1814, but,
due to the invasion of France in the closing days of 1813, are more likely to have become
a poignant leaving present from a father to his son. The pistols are of a bespoke third
size for a young boy’s hands and were sold with their original thuya wood presentation
Purchased by the Pickwickian English traveller, collector and respected exhibition
organiser William Bullock after Napoléon’s fall, they were subsequently published in
London in 1816 with the description ‘manufactured for the King of Rome’. The pistols
were then in the possession of the Anglo-American socialite Cora, Countess of Strafford,
before entering the William Keith Neal Collection, the greatest private gun collection
ever formed, in the 20th Century.
The Northumberland Aphrodite
This impressive statue was carved in the early decades of the Roman Imperial era and is
one of the most faithful and complete replicas of a now lost figure of Aphrodite, which
was executed in Greece in the second half of the 5th century B.C., at the height of the
Classical period of Greek art. The statue is first recorded with certainty in the late 16th
century, as it stood in the garden of the Palazzo Cesi in Rome, on the northern slope of the
Janiculum near the Basilica of Saint Peter.
The Cesi collection was assembled by two brothers, Cardinals Paolo Emilo Cesi and
Federico Cesi who, born into the provincial Umbrian elite, were eager to compete
with the Roman nobility for status and evidence of learning and taste. Their open-air
museum became a major center of attraction for art lovers in general and Dutch artists
In the 18th century, the statue moved to yet another established ownership:
in the Spring of 1773, four statues, two male and two female, including Aphrodite were
set on tall pedestals in the Robert Adam-designed Great Hall at Syon House, the Duke
of Northumberland’s house in Middlesex.
The two female statues were convenient additions, meant to supplement and enhance their male counterparts standing opposite them across the magnificent Great Hall, considered a masterpiece of neoclassical architecture in England.
Canova's Bust of Peace
The rediscovery of Antonio Canova’s Bust of Peace was one of the defining art historical highlights of 2018. Long thought lost, the marble is of seminal importance within the oeuvre of Canova, the greatest Neoclassical sculptor. Its conception can be traced back to 1811, when the Russian statesman Count Nikolai Rumyantsev (1754-1826) commissioned a full figure statue of Peace, now in Kiev.
The Bust is one of Canova’s celebrated Ideal Heads (teste ideali) and was made by the sculptor for his friend and earliest British patron, John Campbell, 1st Baron Cawdor (1753-1821).
The Ideal Heads were conceived by Canova in his late career as gifts to confidants and individuals who had performed particular services to him. They enshrine the sculptor’s idea of facial perfection.
Said by his biographers to have been carved in a state of amore caldissimo, the Ideal Heads transcend the corporeal and present a vision of universal beauty inspired by Canova’s unique genius. The Bust of Peace relates to a group of four such heads given by Canova to the Duke of Wellington, Viscount Castlereagh William Richard Hamilton and Sir Charles Long in 1818 for their personal help in repatriating Italian treasures looted by Napoleon. However, the Peace has added significance since it predates this gift and was the first Ideal Head to arrive in Britain.
Finished in 1816, the marble is a pertinent and very personal symbol of the cessation of the Napoleonic Wars, which had caused turmoil across Europe and cut off Canova from Cawdor and wider British patronage. The marble, which is recorded in intimate correspondence between Canova and Cawdor, was exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1817. It is distinguished by
the carving of the hair, which is unique to the model, and in quality terms is nothing short of miraculous. Its virtuosity is a testament to Canova’s reputation as one of the greatest sculptors ever to have lived. The importance of the bust is reflected in the price it achieved at auction, which, at the point of publication, remains a world auction record for a marble by Canova.
The Castle Howard Roman Cabinets
The rarity of these precious and magnificent pietre dure cabinets lies in the fact that as a pair, these are the only known examples, of such high quality, of either Florentine or Roman production. Almost certainly conceived for the Papal Borghese family, highly skilled craftsmen and bronziers collaborated on this unique commission.
The original condition of these cabinets and their striking presence places them at the highest level of Roman pietre dure works of art in existence. Coupled with this are the Regency carved bases, most probably designed by Charles Heathcote Tatham. The remarkable caryatid figures and sun burst design are one of the earliest examples of the antiquarian movement that was adopted by the English cognoscenti in the early 19th century and promoted by such visionaries as William Beckford. These, however, would appear to be one of the earliest examples of this movement and would have been deemed entirely fitting to support such antique rarities and for the historic environment in which they stood.
One of Britain’s finest stately homes, Castle Howard has been the home of the Carlisle branch of the Howard family for more than 300 years. For generations, members of the family have been among the leading patrons and collectors of their time, beginning with the 3rd Earl of Carlisle, whose vision and daring resulted in the commissioning of this Baroque masterwork from John Vanbrugh in the beginning of the 18th century.
The Rothschild Orpheus Cup
This extremely rare Renaissance cup, with a painted enamel bowl and an en ronde bosse enamelled and ruby-set cover, formed a highlight of the Treasures sale in 2016. It showcases the wonderful imagination of its maker, whose vision of the goddess Diana seated next to Orpheus on Mount Parnassus, with all the exquisite animals spread around the luscious landscape, provides the principal fascination of the work.
The Cup’s distinguished former ownership by the Rothschild family is consistent with its quality and intriguing mixture of styles. Since the 19th century the Orpheus Cup has inspired extensive comment and adulation: first exhibited at the International Exhibition of 1862, where it garnered much attention, it was singled out in a long review of Seamore Place in The Connoisseur in 1902, when it was owned by Alfred Charles de Rothschild. In 1924, the cup was again seen in public for The Exhibition of Art Treasures, with an attribution to Benvenuto Cellini.
On this occasion, the cup was particularly admired by Queen Mary, who is said to have ‘inspected the rich enamel and jewel work with great attention’ (The Yorkshire Post, 11 May 1928). The mythical attribution to Cellini has since been revised, and comparison with a gold and enamel cup in the Rijksmusem (inv. no. BK-17095) indicates a facture in Augsburg in the late 16th or early 17th century for the cover and the stem. The bowl has been dated to the mid-17th century.