The Pleasure of Objects: The Ian & Carolina Irving Collection
Live Auction: 30 January 2024 • 10:00 AM EST • New York

The Pleasure of Objects: The Ian & Carolina Irving Collection 30 January 2024 • 10:00 AM EST • New York

S otheby’s is pleased to be offering, The Pleasure of Objects: The Ian and Carolina Irving Collection this January during Old Master’s Week.

The Pleasure of Objects: The Ian & Carolina Irving Collection

By Remy Renzullo

The Pleasure of Objects: never has there been a more fitting or appropriate title for a sale than that of the extraordinary and deeply personal collection of Ian and Carolina Irving. Two individuals linked in life and in taste, who have spent decades assembling this astounding kunstkammer. Ian, an unquestioned master in the complex and arcane field of antique silver, is more than just a scholar — what makes him unique, but more than that, extraordinary — is his exceptional taste. Taste that is wholly natural, yet informed by the wide-ranging cast of eccentrics who have populated his adult life — Andy Warhol, Kenny Lane and Chrissie Gibbs, to name just a few. Conversely, Carolina, famous the world over for possessing some of the most exceptional taste ever gifted to an individual, is also a true scholar. Having studied colonial art earlier in life, she has always been and always will be an autodidact — her knowledge constantly increasing, a result of her innate and sweeping curiosity.

Returning to their collection: the result of two individuals with a lifelong passion for the unusual; a never-ending quest for beauty. But it is not beauty alone imbued within the objects in this sale — for that would be too obvious. Beautiful these objects may be, they are also some of the finest of their kind — which is not to say the most ‘important’ (though, in many cases they are) but instead the most interesting, the most stylish. Many before have assembled great collections, but few can lay claim to as confident and unusual an assemblage as this — the result of both scholarship and taste.

What lifts Ian and Carolina’s collection into the sublime, however, is the way in which they lived with it — because live, they did. The pieces that follow in this catalogue were not tucked away on a high shelf or veiled behind heavy curtains lest anyone think to touch them; they were lovingly used and adored, as they would have been in the courts of old. Few possess Ian and Carolina’s taste, fewer still their joie de vivre. Hopefully in parting with their collection, they will impart a bit of both on those who come next.

It is also a collection with provenances filled with exalted names from the past, that conjure up a lost world, when great fortunes still begat great collections — names intertwined with the glamour of the twentieth century like Mellon and Patino; mixed with pieces from their aristocratic forebears of time past: Rosebery, Cholmondeley, Tollemache. And not one, but many, bear the hallmark of the Royal houses of Great Britain and Hanover.

When considering the greatest rooms of the last decades, at the top would be what was Ian and Carolina’s Upper East Side apartment. Indeed, one would have to have been living under a literal rock to have not seen its divinity rightly splashed across the pages of every famed interiors publication. A layered and rich mise-en-scene that somehow managed to evoke such disparate but wildly stylish homes as those of Grace Dudley and Harry Blackmer. Yet, nothing was precious or ‘decorated’ — which is not to say that they weren’t carefully considered — and therein lay its brilliance. As two people equally consumed by their love of ‘stuff’ the home abounded in undone brilliance, like some Silk Road caravan transported to Lexington Avenue. Take for example the casual insouciance of a celadon glazed silver-gilt mounted flask, likely from the Brighton Pavilion (lot 26) on top of a piece of faded ikat seemingly plucked from the bottom of a great steamer trunk. It is this nonchalance, but by no means indifference, that has struck a cord with the legions of acolytes who have seen their homes, in person and in photos.

Before I met Ian, I considered antique silver the realm of some dowager great aunt, preserved in aspic and withering away in some dusty Locust Valley pile. How ignorant I was. Ian, whom I consider both a dear friend and a mentor, reshaped my understanding of this rarefied art form. He showed me the grotesque and the beautiful, transfigured through a godly level of craftsmanship, into objects of pure joy and whimsy. Silver and silver-gilt shells, flowers, pineapples all from the great workshops of Nuremberg and Augsburg (lots 80-85) adorned every surface of his houses, often sharing space with their real-life counterparts plucked from evening excursions to the beach or gardens. Ian demystified antique silver for me, making it feel approachable and enjoyable — there is no greater praise I could offer than this, nor is there a greater service that he could make to this fascinating but currently diminishing field.

Inevitably, having spent much time with these objects, I have personal favorites. Chief among them is lot 97, the exquisite beadwork games table by the deft and distinctive hand of Johan Michael van Selow. Once the property of George II, it was purchased directly from Ernest August of Hanover, by Ian, and is now offered for sale publicly for the first time in its many-centuries long history. The grandeur of the provenance aside, for me it recalls many an evening spent in Ian’s cozy book-lined study; cards and claret atop its bejeweled surface. Equally, lot 31, a 17th century silver-gilt mounted Narwhal tusk has induced irrational fits of envy in me — it is a true star of the collection.

To see a collection dispersed, and certainly one as exceptional as this, elicits a mix of emotions. To be a collector is to live with great things, but also to learn how to part with them. Acquiring these treasures brought Ian and Carolina so much joy, but these objects will live on, and undoubtably bring as much joy to those who acquire them next. Ian once told me that in order to experience the sensation of buying something wonderful it has to hurt a little — I have no doubt many will be experiencing a bit of pleasureful pain during the sale when these objects find their way into the great collections of tomorrow.

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Ian and Carolina’s magical place on the upper east side of Manhattan, was a veritable smorgasbord of delights. They had knocked three rooms into one, dividing them into convivial areas separated by half height bookcases, crowned with shelves filled with splendid porcelain. So there was a feeling of light everywhere, and a wonderful place of welcome for guests.
- Hamish Bowles

Fine & Decorative Arts Highlights

Often, as midnight neared, we’d still be engrossed in conversation, clustered around an array of sparkling 17th-century German silver-gilt stemmed cups, as if around a campfire. In those moments, I realized I was receiving an education, an introduction to a world far beyond my upbringing in the Philippines.
- Daniel Romualdez

Silver Highlights

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