Thursday, November 3, 2011

Auction Accidents: The Herter Brothers Edition

Now dear readers, this one goes back nearly a decade but it was a rather exciting discovery at the time. May I present the "ormolu-mounted lapis lazuli-inset and etched onyx pedestals" offered in the Christie's 19th Century Sale on April 24, 2002.
Image via Christie's
They were offered with no provenance and very little information besides their general description and an estimate of $25,000-30,000. Understandably, Christie's was taken aback when the lot soared to $130,500 and sold to top Victorian furniture dealer Margot Johnson. It turns out that there was a great provenance involved...there always is in these cases. I present a period photograph of the drawing room from the William H. Vanderbilt residence at 640 Fifth Avenue ca. 1882.
Inspiring, no? The home was decorated by the notable firm of Herter Brothers and was beyond lavish...even by the standards of 5th Avenue at the time. Now it may be hard to see what I am getting at so here is a detail.
This is a detail of the doorway in the center of the image above, note the columns flanking it. Thankfully for us Mr. Vanderbilt had the entire home documented in Edward Strahan's Mr. Vanderbilt's Home and Collections of 1883. It has richly colored images that give a true sense of the decoration.
It seems that Margot Johnson had a very keen eye, but according to an article in the Maine Antiques Digest she did not act alone. She was seen at the exhibition for the sale viewing the columns with Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen. It seems that Margot Johnson was purchasing them for the museum with the aid of American Wing donors Barrie A. and Deedee Wigmore. Within six months of the sale they were restored to their original appearance and installed at the museum.
As you can see the lapis-lazuli stones were removed and replaced with red glass cabochons to restore the original look as seen in the illustrations below. The left is a detail from the period photo, the center are as they appeared at Christie's and the right are as they appear today.

The cataloging on the Met's website reveals that it is their opinion that the columns do not come from the doorways, but from matching floor lamps that were in the corners....see the period images below.

I am not sure how they came to this distinction but I defer to their judgement. The Met also notes that Christie's specialist Sebastian Davies informed them that the consignor of the columns was a South American dealer. Little is known about their journey. The house underwent a complete redecoration in 1915 and was sold by the Vanderbilt family in 1942 and subsequently demolished. While we don't know exactly where they were for nearly ninety years it is great that they surfaced in such a dramatic fashion.

A reader brought to my attention that Hirschl & Adler Galleries offered a console from the drawing room at the Winter Antiques Show in 2002. Very small world of goods indeed. According to Antiques and Fine Arts Magazine the console descended in the Vanderbilt family and then made it into the collection of Liberace...go figure.
Image via Hirschl & Adler Galleries


  1. Thanks for such a dramatic story of the reappearance of the Vanderbilt columns. The Herter quality is legendary. They were responsible for some of the most important interiors of the 19th century. A couple very lavish interiors that are intact and visitable are the Morse-Libby house in Portland, Maine and the Lockwood-Mathews house Norwalk, Connecticut.
    --Road to Parnassus

  2. What an amazing story... I'll definitely keep an eye out for them the next time I'm in the Met to view them in person

  3. This was such an interesting post... and one featuring so much beauty!

  4. what an exciting read! with pictures! wonderful

  5. The Liberace connection is especially fascinating...the furniture from the mansion spread all over the country and the world, apparently.