Saturday, September 3, 2011

La Fiorentina Furnishings

This essay is the third of a consecutive series of The Devoted Classicist with the common link being decorating legend Billy Baldwin. His scheme to revitalize the internationally renown Saint Jean Cap Ferrat villa La Fiorentina became an iconic example of interior design with popularity that endures to this day. The 1999 buyer of La Fiorentina purchased it fully furnished, but sold all the contents in a celebrated 2001 auction at Sotheby's New York. The lots consisted mostly of the furnishings selected by Billy Baldwin for Mary and Harding Lawrence, but also some items from the previous owners Roderick "Rory" Cameron and his mother Enid, Lady Kenmare, and even some items included by the new owner.

While the primary sitting room was undoubtedly a glorious space, with a beautiful courtyard on one side and a view down stepped turf steps to the pool and sea beyond, some might be surprised at the number of architectural inconsistencies from what one might expect in a classical room.  The space, which is called the Main Drawing Room in the Sotheby's catalog, was not a classic rectangle in plan, and the French doors had arched transoms on one side and flat head transoms on the other.

In this view from the courtyard towards the Main Drawing Room, one can see the line in the stucco where two floors were added in the rebuilding by Roderick Cameron and his mother Enid, Lady Kenmare.  It is presumed that the interpretation of the checkerboard parterre was the work of noted garden designer Russell Page.

In the descriptions of furnishings from the 2001 Sotheby's catalog, Sale 7638, that follows, the price shown is the Hammer Price plus the Buyer's Premium.
A Louis XV style marble chimneypiece, from the Cameron-Kenmare rebuilding, $14,400.
A Louis XV giltwood mirror, mid 18th century, 7 ft 1 in. by 4 ft 1 in., also from the collection of Cameron-Kenmare and visible in the photo of the room in the previous post of The Devoted Classicist.  $12,000.
Two similar Chinese export blue and white baluster urns with handles, 25 inches high, $4,500.
A Chinese export blue and white porcelain charger, 18th century, in the Kangxi style.  $6,600.
A blue and cream wool carpet designed by Billy Baldwin, one of a pair, both 12 ft 2 in by 9 ft 8 in.  Each sold for $7,200.
A Chinese export style black lacquer low table, modern, designed by Charles Sevrigny, 60.5" by 49" by 17.5", $6,600.
Sevrigny was a popular French furniture and interior designer in the 1960s and 70s;  he also designed the lighting for this room.
A contemporary pale blue upholstered four seat sofa with six additional decorative silk pillows, $11,400.
A pair of pale blue cotton upholstered armchairs, $4,800.
A view of the Main Drawing Room, opposite the fireplace.  The pairs of French doors with flat-head transoms open to a gravel terrace and broad turf steps down towards the sea.
A Louis XVI fauteuil a la reine, third quarter 18th century, signed J.M. Pluvinet, $6,600.

A set of four Louis XV/XVI painted fauteuils a la reine, circa 1770, $36,400.
A pair of Billy Baldwin designed two-tiered upholstered tabourets, 20.5" x 20.5" x 15.5", $12,000.

A pair of metal wire end tables designed by Warren Platner, circa 1970, manufactured by Knoll, missing glass tops, 18" high. $3,000.
A pair of brass three-tiered side tables, 20th century, designed by Billy Baldwin, missing glass shelves, 28.25" high, $6,000.

A Louis XV provincial ebonized table a ecrire, mid 18th century.
There were a couple of small black writing tables used as end tables in this room, but it cannot be determined from the photos if this and the following example were actually from that room.

A Louis XV style ebonized table a ecrire, $1,920.

A pair of Chinese export blue and white porcelain ovoid jars, one fitted as a lamp, together with a baluster-shaped urn.

A pair of Chinese export blue and white porcelain double gourd vases now mounted as lamps.
A pair of Chines export porcelain blue and white porcelain headrests.
A German blue and white pottery baluster-shaped jar, circa 1700, now mounted as a lamp.


Kenzo Okada, 1902-1982, ISLAND, oil on canvas, 73 by 48.75 inches, circa 1954-55.  $21,450.
A pair of white linen three seat upholstered sofas, 6 ft 10 in. by 34.5 in. deep by 28 in. high.  $10,200.
A view towards the Gallery with Martin Battersby murals (outside the Dining Room) and the Entrance Hall beyond.
A Louis XV style ormolu-mounted ebonized bureau plat, last quarter 19th century, 6 ft 9 in by 30 in by 32.5 in high, $23,750.

Two similar Wedgwood style black basaltware urns on stands, raised on modern ebonized bases, 38 in. high.  $6,600.

A pair of Louis XVI style black lacquer and parcel-gilt bookshelves fitted at the sides with Chinese export lacquer panels, 86.5" long, $12,000.

A pair of Chinese export blue and white baluster-shaped jars and covers, 25" high, $4,800.

Theodoros Stamos, b. 1922, GRAND BLUE SUN-BOX, 68 by 60 in., dated 1969.  Note that the painting is installed reversed from this image in the photo of the room.

A pair of Louis XVI style ormolu three-light bras de lumieres, 19th century, 29 in. high by 20 in. wide.

The Main Drawing Room of villa La Fiorentina as decorated by Billy Baldwin.

The views of the room are from BILLY BALDWIN REMEMBERS by Billy Baldwin, 1974;  vintage copies of this book may be purchased here.  The furnishings are from the Sotheby's New York auction catalog Sale 7638 and vintage copies of the catalog may be purchased here.


  1. The prices fetched by some of the modern upholstered pieces
    can only be explained by the Billy Baldwin connection. In themselves,
    they are unremarkable, at least to someone who has recently pored over
    another auction report displaying exceptional furnishings from jobs
    done by Colefax and Fowler. Still, the Villa La Fiorenta legacy remains an endlessly fascinating subject.

  2. Toby, the pair of two-cushion tabourets were estimated (which means nothing, of course) at $800 - $1,200, for example and sold for $12,000. The fabric may be special, I am not sure, and they are iconic Billy Baldwin designs. But clearly provenance of Baldwin, and perhaps La Fiorentina too, added to the value. Thank you for commenting.

  3. As a long time antiques dealer, I've been fascinated by the rise in price and popularity in modern upholstered pieces. Although the above are extreme cases, driven by provenance, the fact is that an old custom made frame is a bargain compared to almost any off-the-rack modern upholstery, or to new custom work.

    That aside, what marvelous stuff---and how astonishing to see the mantel, so perfect both in itself, and in the drawing room, disattached and sold from the house. One presumes that its replacement is either one of those ghastly Looie-Looie things that flashy money is so fond of, or one of those equally ghastly faux renaissance, hooded limestone affairs that one sees too often in the decorating magazines nowadays

  4. D.E.D., although the doweled hardwood frames, hand-tied springs, horsehair padding and down cushions make good upholstered pieces valuable, I remember when they did not bring much money in resale, especially if the fabric needed to be changed. I recall the Denning & Forcade upholstery in the notable auction of the Wrightsman, Palm Beach, furnishings bringing such high prices, at the beginning of a trend that continues, especially in the celebrated sales. But the blue four seat sofa is not unusual; surely there was some competition in the bidding from those wanting to replicate the room in a new setting. I would love to see what the room at La Fiorentina looks like today.

  5. May we assume that the Martin Battersby murals bit the dust
    when the new owners gutted the place? Appalling if true.
    There have been instances where painted décors were removed intact
    on their plaster surfaces~for instance, the trompe l'oeils by Rex Whistler for Lady Diana and Duff Cooper's drawing room at 90 Gower Street. When London University was expanding, the neoclassical decorations were removed from the house before its demolition.

  6. Toby, surely the Battersby murals were painted on a canvas lining. But something tells me that, if they were, they would have been included in the auction, too. I am still hoping one of my readers will give us an update.

  7. I fear that whoever bought this house.....had no regard....nor no interest in its furnishings or murals. I should have flown over there...and I would have had I known.

    "Gutted" damn near "gutted me!"
    the best house in the world I thought when I first saw pictures of it.

    I feel the same way about Tony Duquette's "Ranch"~! thank God Tim Street-Porter's photos were taken a month or so before it was burned down to the ground....

    Lesson.these things are ephemeral.....drink them in......and take photographs.....

    then they can live forever!!

  8. Penelope, the site must be spectacular and the primary attraction despite the attractive house. Of course some people do not appreciate patina. Thanks for your comments.

  9. These good ' Fiorentina' blogs are getting some interesting responses here, often in a tone of 'how could they !' (sell the whole place lock stock and barrel) , or 'how dare they !' (auction off the interiors including the fireplace).
    The answer is simple : because that's what rich people do !

    It was a superb room, but none of the furniture was worth anything by itself (the auction results were simply ridiculous) - and if you pay 40 million for a house, you're not going to keep the curtains, are you ?
    The beauty of the house is its design and location, look it up on Google earth, it's on the tip of a tiny East facing peninsula off the main Cap Ferat peninsula - surrounded by sea on three sides, simply breathtaking. Mr Heineken went through an abduction in the 80s in which his chauffeur was murdered, so I guess seclusion was important to him. A good investment too. Just imagine what the Russians would pay for that property today !

    I agree with Penelope's last statement - Be pleased that there are photographs and enjoy the beauty of the SCHEME ! Don’t criticize people that none of us will ever meet for what they do with their private rooms. Personally, I think a limestone fireplace might suit this very Tuscan looking house better than a marble rococo number (although I share D.E.D's distaste for the way they appear in any kind of house nowadays).
    Study the photos, dream and be inspired.

  10. John,
    I really enjoyed this house post. La Fiorentina is such a trophy house, as long as it's not demolished, all will be well that ends well. I can just hear the breeze blowing through the pines and the plane trees.

    Dean Farris

  11. I agree with Mr. Mees; and long before "Google earth" I swam out to try to see that house from the water! I was treading water out there for about an hour trying to get a glimpse! My husband was afraid I was going to drown!!

    Thank God we have the photographs......I do hope those Battersby murals were saved by someone! They were totally fetching!

    I also agree about that fireplace. It wasn't really right........but what a sensational "SCHEME"!!!


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