Lot 22
  • 22

French, second half 19th century, An exceptional carved mahogany bed

500,000 - 800,000 GBP
bidding is closed


  • mahogany
  • 210cm. high, 302cm. wide, 210cm. deep; 6ft. 11in., 9ft. 11in., 6ft. 11in.
in the form of a shell-shaped vessel upon which a two-tailed figure of mermaid, carved in the round, is seated, her right arm upraised; the shell with ribbed mouldings and carved with scrolls and stylised shells, two swans guiding the boat on each side 


By repute, commissioned by the Marquise de Païva (1819-1884), but never delivered; 

La Fleur Blanche, 6 Rue des Moulins, Paris, until sold with Maurice Rheims, Paris, 3 October 1946;

thence by descent to the current owners


Biennale des Antiquaires, Grand Palais, Paris, 21 September - 7 October 1990

"L'Amore - dall'Olimpo all'alcova", Turin, 29 May - 4 October 1992


Romi, Maisons Closes, Paris, 1952, p. 383 (illustrated) 

C. Bernheimer, Figures of Ill Repute, Cambridge, 1989, p. 101

J.-C. Renard, F. Zabaleta, Le Mobilier Amoureux ou la Volupté de l'Accessoire, Paris, 1991, p. 117


An exceptional piece in very good conserved condition, with minor marks and scratches consistent with age and use, and some polish residues. There are some hardly noticeable chips along the construction lines, and one sympathetically repaired area with fillings to the back of the shell. Some discreet filling, hardly noticeable, to old and very minor scratches to the body of the mermaid figure. The pale burgundy velvet cover, 19th century, comprised of three sections (one large panel, and two narrower side panels), and applied with silvered metal covered buttons (oxidised), lined; is in overall very good overall condition. Please note that this piece comes with a new custom-made mattress that has never been used.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

Related literature:

J.-A. Debray, La Païva 1819-1884: Ses amants, ses maris, Paris, 1986

A. Gady, Les hôtels particuliers de Paris, Paris, 2011

J. Hargrove (ed.), Carrier-Belleuse: Le Maître de Rodin, exhibition catalogue, Paris, 2014

J.-P. Testud, "Renaissance des degrés d’onyx de l’hôtel de la Païva", La Demeure Historique, 167


This exceptional bed, certainly one of the most extraordinary pieces of 19th century decorative arts, has traditionally been identified with the legendary Lit de la Païva, the love nest of the richest and most notorious demi-mondaine of the Second Empire. Although its precise history remains shrouded in mystery, a number of stylistic affinities relate it to the works commissioned for her hôtel particulier located at 25, Avenue des Champs-Elysées, itself one of the greatest private commissions of the second half of the century.

Like no other country in Europe, France had a ripe tradition of magnificent courtesans of varied background: one of their earliest modern exponent is found in the aristocratic Ninon de l’Enclos (1620-1705), the patroness of Molière and Voltaire. These ladies belonged to the “demi-monde”, a term coined by Alexandre Dumas fils to designate a slightly dystopian, alternative world to that of the ascending bourgeoisie, where these women would, with the help of their lovers’ seemingly inextinguishable funds, transform themselves in impeccable hostesses of the capital’s finest salons, rivaling - at least in theory - those of the aristocrats of their age. These concubines or “Grandes Horizontales” achieved fame and success as never before under the Second Empire, as confirmed by works ranging from Alexandre Dumas fils’ La Dame aux Camélias (1848) to Émile Zola’s Nana (1880), which perfectly encapsulate this phenomenon, unforgettably evoked, some forty years later, by Marcel Proust in the character of Odette de Crécy in Du côté de chez Swann (1913). Beside La Païva, notable and wealthy cocottes who charmed kings and emperors included Marie Duplessis (1824-1847), La Castiglione (1837-1899), Apollonie Sabatier (1822-1890), Liane de Pougy (1869-1950), and Marguerite Steinheil (1869-1954).


Known as La Païva, Esther Thérèse Lachmann (1819-1884) was born to a Russian family of Jewish and Polish descent in fairly poor circumstances. Determined to escape from her stifling surroundings and social condition, she reached Paris before 1838, there to embark on her very own cursus honorum. By the late 1830s she was married to a certain Antoine François Hyacinthe Villoing, tailor, who would conveniently die in 1849. The wealthy pianist and composer Henri Herz (1803-1888) – of whom Lachmann had duly become the mistress - introduced her to the leading artists of the time, including Richard Wagner, Hans von Bülow, and Théophile Gautier, and she rapidly became one of Paris’s most sought-after demi-mondaines. After Herz’s escape to America, Lachmann travelled to London, to become the lover of Edward Stanley, 2nd Baron Stanley of Alderley; dukes and bankers followed. In 1851, a widow, Lachmann married Albino Francisco de Paiva (1824-1873), the heir to two Macao fortunes partly based on opium trade and misleadingly styled by some Marquis de Paiva. Now Madame de Païva, Lachmann nonetheless allegedly terminated the marriage on the very next day, dispatching the unfortunate “marquis” to Portugal. The following year, La Païva began her affair with the much younger Prussian industrialist Count Guido Henckel von Donnersmarck (1830-1916), a cousin of Prince Otto von Bismarck and one of Europe’s richest men. Her charms and conversation must have been truly prodigious, although in 1857 Count Veil-Castel – director of the Louvre – noted that she was “at least forty years old, painted and powdered like an old tightrope walker, and has slept with everyone.” Even though they were only married in 1871, around the time of her second husband’s judicious suicide, von Donnersmarck lavishly financed his lover's exorbitant extravagances, purchasing the Château de Pontchartrain, near Paris, and most importantly backing the construction of the Hôtel de la Païva as well as obtaining some of the most incredible jewels available on the market, including, later on, some that had belonged to the deposed Empress Eugénie. (Two of La Païva’s magnificent diamonds later sold Sotheby’s Geneva, 17 May 2007, lots 437 and 438, for £2,631,115 and £1,642,515 respectively.)


The Hôtel de la Païva was built from 1855 by architect Pierre Manguin (1815-1869) who would later supervise the restoration of the couple’s Château de Pontchartrain, and completed in 1866 under architect Hector-Martin Lefuel (1810-1880), known for the completion of the Palais du Louvre, including the Pavillon de Flore. Lachmann herself was apparently exalted as the figure of Night on the ceiling of the salon, painted by Paul Baudry. The young Auguste Rodin, working for the sculptor Albert Carrier-Belleuse (1824-1887), also participated in the decoration of the mansion where La Païva was to reign as undisputed queen of the demi-monde for several years, her regular guests including well-known writers such as Gustave Flaubert, Émile Zola, and the Goncourt brothers, as well as painters such as Eugène Delacroix and members of the ruling class; her parties were legendary (fig. 1). Following the debacle of Napoleon III, Count von Donnestmark was one of the negotiators of the war indemnity France had to pay to Prussia, which led to the couple having to leave Paris for the newly built Schloss Neudeck, in Upper Silesia, where Lachmann, now a legitimate Countess, died in 1884. The mansion on the Champs Elysées was sold by the Count on 25 November 1893 to a Monsieur Saloschin of Berlin for the relatively modest sum of 1,430,000 Francs, of which 252,444 were paid for the furnishings. Finally, in 1904 it became the headquarters of the Travellers Club.

Today, it is difficult to appraise the character of La Païva: positively ruthless and of highly dubious – if at all existent - morals, she was also a notable patron of the arts, employing some of the best artists and craftsman of the period to preserve and legitimate her newly acquired social status.


If indeed commissioned by La Païva at some point in the late 1860s or early 1870s – arguably a very early date - the bateau-lit was never installed, probably due to the Marquise’s hurried departure from France on the wake of the Franco-Prussian war, but found instead its way into the notorious brothel at 6 Rue des Moulins, near the Palais Royal, known by the deceptive name of “La Fleur Blanche”. Probably the most celebrated and luxurious brothel in Paris, together with Le Chabanais, La Fleur Blanche’s distinguished history dated back to 1860. Through the decades, the most important members of international high society went past its doors, including kings, crown princes, members of the aristocracy, and numerous heads of state – visits to such Parisian luxurious houses of ill repute apparently forming part of the entertainment arranged for foreign dignitaries. At the heart of the establishment was the popular torture chamber, but the hôtel particulier also housed a number of extremely lavish bedrooms, each distinguished by its own particular theme, such as a Moresque bedroom, or that of a Duke (fig. 2).  At the turn of the century, the artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec had famously set up his easel at the brothel, which features in some of his best-known paintings (figs. 3 and 4). In Henri Perruchot’s 1958 biography of the painter the description of the bed found in that maison close matches the present lot to perfection: "La Païva's bed, whose great headboard supports a large female nude carved in the round, is esconced in a room whose ceiling is nothing but a vast mirror. The Second Empire bed in the form of a shell stands on a carved base representing the wavelets of the sea" (fig. 5). Following the closure of all brothels after the end of the Second World War, the contents of La Fleur Blanche were dispersed at auction in 1946 by Maurice Rheims.


Built in the neo-Renaissance style, the Hôtel de la Païva became one of the supreme examples of decorative art under the Second Empire, with Manguin responsible for all the aspects of its interior decoration. A number of ornaments still in situ show stylistic affinities to the present bed, with its exquisite carving, in particular the works by one of the foremost sculptors of the Deuxième Empire, Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse (1824-1887). These include a silvered bronze fountain of Vénus et Cupidon and the nymphs surrounding the fireplace in the Marquise's bedroom. But perhaps the most famous pieces of furniture of the palace were the four patinated bronze console tables and centre table once found in the grand salon (fig. 6). Conceived by Manguin, the crouched male figures of Atlases were sculpted by Carrier-Belleuse (possibly with the help of Aimé-Jules Dalou), while the rest was the work of bronzier Ferdinand Barbedienne. These were regrettably dispersed with the sale of the house in the late 1890s: one is now found at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris (inv. 22626); one at the Toledo Museum; one at the Musée d'Orsay, and one in the French trade. 

Further similarities between the siren that is the focus of the present bed - loosely based on the swan-drawn chariot of Venus - and other works by Carrier-Belleuse can be traced, most notably with a white marble Minerve sold Aguttes, Paris, 20 June 2006, lot 328, with parallels in the treatment of the bosom and head; in a painted terracotta of an Ondine in a private collection (1864), or in a sketch for La Source (prior to 1884, ill. in Le Maître de Rodin, op. cit., p. 91, reproduced here in fig. 7). However, while it is possible that Carrier-Belleuse might have conceived the figure, there are no extant preparatory sketches or plaster models to sustain this theory. In fact, as representative of a whole era, his style was appropriated by a number of other sculptors and carvers.

The possible makers for this outstanding work of art will therefore have to be researched amongst the carvers working for the major cabinet-makers of the Second Empire, where carving in the round had become fashionable once again, especially with the mantelpieces and cabinets executed in that neo-Renaissance style that had its roots in the School of Fontainebleau, a fashion shaped also by the long restoration of the château de Blois. Perhaps the most successful in this trend were the royal cabinet-makers of the Maison Fourdinois, who, incidentally, were also employed to furnish the Païva’s mansion. For example, a pair of not dissimilar figures appears in a monumental table attributed to Henri-Auguste Fourdinois (1830-1907) that was recently on the open market.

The true uniqueness of this matchless piece lies not merely in its colossal proportions, but also, and probably most importantly, in its remarkable, bold fluidity, embodying like no other piece the transition from a mere copying of Renaissance motifs to the modern and graceful lines of Art Nouveau, which it anticipates. Moreover, the bateau-lit was extraordinarily made not in oak – the traditional timber for ronde-bosse carvings of this scale – but in Cuban mahogany, normally used by ébénistes for veneering, as if to further emphasize the richness of the commission. In a century that, in France and in Europe in general, is renowned for its incessant revival of style and pastiches, and constant looking back to the experiences of a glorious, bygone past, the Païva bed stands apart as one of its very first entirely original creations.