Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Treasures of France, By Way of Memphis

Many in the Central Gardens district of Memphis know the residence of cardiologist Dr. Bruce Wilson because of the many roses covering his Arts & Crafts era home.  Some know that he collected French furniture and art.  But very few had ever set foot inside since Dr. Wilson bought the house in 1979. There had been a few rumors earlier this year that a local museum might even have an exhibition of the collection.  But it was a surprise to the neighbors a couple months ago when four moving vans from Christie's New York came to collect the antique furnishings and art for a spectacular single-owner auction on October 24, 2012, aptly named "Treasures of France".

The Wilson Residence, October, 2012.
Photo by John J. Tackett for The Devoted Classicist.
There were a few photographs taken to show the furnishings in situ and those give an idea of the decor along with the catalog shots that more clearly show the objects.  However, the interior design is not the story here, but rather the collection itself.  Some representations of the range of the collection follow.

Louis XIV bibliotheque basse
by Andre Charles Boulle, circa 1700.
This ormolu mounted, ebony, ebonized brass, simulated tortiseshell and Boulle marquetry bibliotheque basse (low cabinet with bookshelves behind doors) was made by Andre Charles Boulle about 1700 when the ebeniste was 60.  The central door is mounted with a figure of Pamona flanked by musical trophies.  According to the condition report, the feet have been replaced and some of the mounts were replaced in the 19th century.  This type of bas d'armoire, enriched with figures of Ramona, Ceres, Mars, and Bacchus enjoyed enormous success again from 1720 and yet again during the Neo-classical 1770s.  Estimate $250,000 to $350,000.  Price realized:  $266,500.

Louis XIV Savonnernie carpet fragment,
circa 1670 to 1685.
This low pile carpet is part of the 93 commissioned by Louis XIV for the Grande Galerie of the Louvre.  However, it is thought not to have been used at the Louvre but instead laid out for official ceremonies at Versailles.  It was not unusual for these large carpets to have later been cut down for use elsewhere.  There are more than fifty surviving in the national collections of France, and three in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, as well as other museums and private collections.  This Savonnerie carpet is now 13 ft 10 in by 7 ft 8 in.  Estimate $40,000 to $60,000.  Not sold.

Marquetry table a la Bourgogne
by Jean Pierre Latz, circa 1755.
This Louis XV ormolu-mounted amaranth, bois satine, tulipwood and bois de bout table by German-born cabinetmaker Jean Pierre Latz dates from circa 1755.  Although the marquetry is fine, it is the desk components, revealed when opened, that makes this piece truly remarkable.  It was believed to have been commissioned by Marie-Victoire Sophie de Noailles, the duchesse de Penthievre, before 1756, then by descent to her son (of the chateau de Sceaux), and then to his daughter, the duchesse d'Orleans, mother of King Louis Phillipe.  Estimate $200,000 to $300,000.  Price realized:  $278,500.

A pair of porcelain Bleu Nouveau vases and covers,
Sevres. circa 1774.
Believed to have been made in 1774, these vases with biscuit portrait medallions of Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI are thought to commemorate the coronation of the King and Queen of France.  Whether or not they were intended as a gift to the King or as a diplomatic gift, it is not known.  The plaster model still exists at the factory, but it is thought that these are the only extant finished pair.  It is noteworthy that the gilding is different on each.  Estimate $250,000 to $350,000.  Price realized:  $242,500.

Louis XV giltwood canape en corbeille,
attributed to Etienne Meunier, circa 1750.
This "couch", as canape translates, follows the corbeille form with the back gently curving forward and downward to form the arms.  More unusual of the form, however, are the dips of the back and the asymmetrical ends.  Estimate $20,000 to $40,000.  Price realized:  $40,000.

The Bird Nesters,
Francois Boucher, circa 1732.
The Bird Nesters, 36 x 32 1/8 in. oval, is an oil on canvas painting typical of Boucher's style.  The Lot Notes says it best in describing the series of similar paintings as "depicting life-sized, half-length, rustically attired couples engaged in subtly erotic, sexually suggestive interaction.  The broad paint handling and the small-featured faces of their protagonists connect these paintings with Boucher's large mythologies. . .The Bird Nesters depicts a pretty young bird seller putting chicks in a cage as an eager suitor chats her up.  The boy's casual assertiveness - the confident manner in which he rests his arm on top of the girl's birdcage, strokes one of ehr birds suggestively with his finger, and gazes directly into her gently diffident eyes - underscores the flirtatious undercurrent of the painting, as does the girl's ambivalent gesture of offering one small bird with her left hand while withdrawing another with her right hand.  The verdant overabundance of colorful flowers that surround and ornament the pink-cheeked fresh-faced protagonists adds to the scene's mood of blossoming fecundity".  Now that is a catalog description, Devoted Readers.  Estimate $250,000 to $350,000.  Price realized:  $242,500.
Plat d'hors-d'oeuvres, Bleu Celeste,
Vincennes, circa 1753.
This porcelain oblong octagonal dish is from the first Louis XV service, the first time this newly developed blue color was used.  The gilt scrolling was reserved for exclusive use on the royal service.  Estimate $50,000 to $70,000.  Price realized:  $50,000.

Pair of service plates, Louis XV Versailles service,
Assiettes 'A Groseilles', circa 1763 to 1770.
It is thought this Sevres dessert service was first used at the Pavillion Francais and later at the Chateau de Trianon. Estimate $30,000 to $50,000.  Price realized:  $43,750.

Tureen stand, 'Service de la Reine',
Sevres, 1784.
Marie-Antoinette commissioned this Sevres service, it is thought, for the redecorated apartments a the Tuilleries.  Instead, the service was presented as a gift to the King of Sweden, Gustave III, who was visiting France.  King Gustave commissioned an additional 73 pieces.  When Marie-Antoinette received her own service, there were an additional 24 large oval and round platters.  The Comtesse d'Artois, her sister-in-law, commissioned an identical service 5 years later.  Herend produced copies in the second half of the 19th century.  Wile the last two services are identifiable, pieces from the first two are not.  Estimate $40,000 to 60,000.  Price realized:  $74,500.

Plateau de sauciere, 'Service Arabesque',
Sevres, 1784.
The last service ordered by Louis XVI in 1782 or 1783, political unrest ceased production at the Sevres factory around 1787, leaving the order incomplete.  Louis Le Masson, an architect and engineer, designed the service inspired by Antiquity and the recently discovered frescoes at Pompeii and Herculaneum.  Estimate $30,000 to $50,000.  Not sold.

Ormolu mounted Chinese lacquer commode,
Dennis Genty, circa 1750.
It is not known for certain, but perhaps the fabrication of this commode was contracted out and retailed by the marchand-mercier Genty who was based on the rue Saint Honore, the center of the luxury goods trade.  Estimate $100,000 to $150,000.  Not sold.

Regence giltwood mirror,
circa 1725.
The cresting of the the Regence mirror is thought to be associated (that is, not original to this piece).  Estimate $10,000 to $15,000.  Not sold.

Louis XV giltwood pliant,
circa 1750 to 1755.
Possibly made by Nicolas Quinibert Foliot or his brother Francois, this folding stool was believed to have been supplied to the Garde Meuble de la Couronne around 1750 to 1755 for use in the State apartments.  Folding stools were used almost exclusively at this time by the royal court, where only the king and queen were allowed to be seated in a chair with arms. Estimate $60,000 to $100,000.  Not sold.

Pair of Louis XVI white painted and parcel gilt fauteuils a la Reine,
Adrien-Pierre, circa 1785.
This pair of open armchairs were probably delivered to Marie-Antoinette for either St. Cloud or the Maison de la Reine at the Hameau at Versailles.  Part of this suite is currently installed in the Petit Trianon, Versailles.  Estimate $50,000 to $80,000.  Not sold.

Pair of Russian ormolu-mounted bloodstone urns,
circa 1790 to 1800.
This pair of urns with covers are indicative of a fashion that started in France, but the cost to import them became prohibitive, then illegal by 1793 when Russia enacted a trade embargo.  The bronzes are attributed to the Imperial bronze workshops of St. Petersburg, and the hardstone from the Imperial lapidary workshops.  Bloodstone is a type of dark green chalcedomy with distinctive small red dots, also known as Heliotrope or Blood Jasper.  The mounts are similar to those on a pair of urns in the boudoir at Pavlosk Palace.  Estimate $60,000 to $100,000.  Price realized:  $170,500.

Pair of Louis XVI ormolu and patinated bronze
three branch wall lights.
Attributed to Francois Remond, circa 1785.
Two pairs of this model delivered to the Comte d'Artois for the Palais du Temple are now in the Petit Trianon.  Estimate $120,000 to $180,000.  Price realized:  $206,500.

A large ormolu twelve light chandelier,
after Jacques Caffieri, 20th century.
This chandelier is based on a model by Jacques Caffieri between 1750 and 1753 for Chateau d'Anet (and then moved to Bibliotheque Mazarine, Paris).  Putti holding a turret representative of 3 towers in Madame de Pompadour's coat of arms is the dominant decorative theme.  Estimate $30,000 to $50,000.  Price realized:  $25,000.
A late Louis XV lit a la Polanaise
Noel Baudin, circa 1765.
The bed is primarily included here because it is one of the few photographs that shows the rooms of the house with the collection.  The bed has been extended to better conform to today's standards.  Estimate $5,000 to $8,000.  Price realized:  $3,750.

Except as noted, photographs and descriptions are from the Christie's catalog for Sale 2762 "Treasures of France" which may be viewed at the website.  Christie's will hold Panel Discussions in connection with this auction on Sunday, October 21, starting at 2 pm with designer Thomas Jayne joining in at 5 pm followed by a hands-on tour of the gallery and a reception;  more information about these Special Events may be found here.

There is a video here showing some of the objects displayed in Dr. Wilson's home.  The collector gives the we-are-just-custodians speech, but sadly, offers no insight into his thoughts in acquiring these magnificent objects.  Where there treasures will go next is unknown.  But it is doubtful that any will ever return to Memphis.


  1. My goodness me, how exquisite all this is, and how Palais! Thanks for the heads up, I shall mosey over to Christie's to take in the preview. Reggie

    1. Palais, indeed. In addition to the lots shown here, a great many have a royal provenance. We'd all be interested if you have a follow-up comment after seeing the preview exhibition.

  2. Some incredibly important pieces -and not only in USA but in a private collection in Memphis? Truly astounding! The Dr. was/is quite a dedicated collector.

    1. Yes, clearly he had done his homework in making choices for building his collection. Although there is no silver, at least in this sale, it is a rather encyclopaedic collection. Thank you for commenting.

  3. The overused term "gobsmacked" comes to mind, but this time it is deserved!

    1. Toby, the term is never ever heard here, so please feel free to use it in your comments as often as you like.

  4. Dear John,

    Good job of demonstrating how the South is often underestimated by the rest of the country...many of my Southern clients have incredibly high taste levels, and I am often shocked myself by the ideas they come up with for their exqusite homes. One client in Charleston ordered over $200,000 in Scalamandre alone!

    Dean Farris

    1. Dean, there's certainly a high level of connoisseurship, that is undeniable.

  5. Is it correct to assume Dr. Wilson had a coterie of trusted experts to assist his collecting? Wonder who?

    1. Terry, it appears that the collection was built almost exclusively from auction purchases by the collector himself over the past 25 years rather than through private purchases with an agent/adviser.

  6. I am told he wishes a new chapter in his and the treasures lives, for the job of guardian and curator is consuming...so new hearts are needed to cherish beauty. Thomas Jayne will speak on the NEED to mix 18thC into these modern interiors of today, which I believe William Haines did so perfectly in the Mid-Century.

    1. Thanks, Swan. When it is time for a change, I suppose it is time. Thank you for commenting. I am sorry for the delay, but it was out of my control.

  7. As others have commented, this is a remarkable collection, probably more so because it was hidden in a relatively modest house. Somehow I find the good doctor's taste and knowledge rather uplifting.

    1. A wonderful surprise! More than a few items are museum-worthy, so it would be especially interesting to learn where they end up.

  8. OMG, this IS serious stuff. I guess I won't be bidding this time around. Can't wait to hear Reggies comments which I am sure will make for an interesting post.

    It is incredible that you would find things of this caliber and provenance in the home of a cardiologist in Memphis. If I went by this house, I probably would not even give it a second look. Goes to show you...you can't judge a book by its cover.

    Damn! wish I still lived in New York. Would love to attend those panel discussions.

    John you are a treasure keeping us all up to date and informed with posts such as these. I have learned more from you than from all the art classes I ever attended!

    1. Julietta, I sometimes think I am a font of not-so-useful information. But it is heartening to know that you and so many Devoted Readers find some interest in my ramblings. Many thanks for your comments.

  9. Are you going to the Symposium...a must for youthful ears whose minds have been infused with the love of ONLY Mid Century to Modern Art....one needs to infuse the the finer points of the 18thC into the Modern homes...as the Master Interior Designers of Past

    1. Unfortunately, I am unable to attend. Hopefully someone will give a report.

  10. I left a comment a few days ago, but it seems to have been lost in the ether. Basically I was expressing similar comments to lindaraxa's - but how uplifting it is to learn of this secret collector. If it's awaiting moderation just delete this.

    1. I don't know what happened with the comments and why some came through but others did not. Many thanks for commenting.

  11. Oh! Your ramblings are "oh so interesting" and "oh so useful!"!

    It strikes me as tragic that this doctor in Memphis collected this bunch of treasures; did not share them with his neighbors in that lovely city in the South. (nor anywhere else)!

    Heartbreaking! I completely believe in sharing treasures.......whether they be architecture, gardens, collections,antiques....gardens, plants.....really anything of
    true value!

    Did he die? If he is alive I would love to hear his philosophy of "collecting" and not sharing"!!!

    Sharing them is one's duty in life if one has the taste and knowledge to "collect"!?

    Who doesn't agree with that? I would love to hear!


    oh please comment!

    1. Penelope, I, too, would love to hear the good doctor's views on collecting, what inspired him to choose this particular area, etc. There is a period panelled room included in the auction, apparently bought but not installed, so it would be interesting to know what was his earlier intent. Before it is taken down, I hope you will take a look at the video, given access through a link, where Dr. Wilson does offer a few comments.

  12. Paul Lazlo and William Haines knew the value of including the 18thC period into Modern interiors and homes, even using Art of both ages.

    The good Doctor is too be commended on his guardianship of these objects of Beauty which require much conservation and time and LOVE. These good have been lost especially the fragile nature of porcelain. His tenure is now closing as Charles Ryskamp of the Frick. Life moves on. Many collectors have an aversion to the glare of unknowing eyes in their homes and the elegance of old world family morals still reigns supreme. They are those who use Beauty questionably to garner fame or other self serving status.

    1. I can understand not making one's collection absolutely exposed to the public, but it is a pleasure to share with kindred spirits, isn't it? That's my view.

  13. Dear Devoted Readers, as you may have guessed, there has been a problem with COMMENTS with a number being delayed in being submitted. I don't know for sure what happened, but I appreciate your understanding.
    __ The Devoted Classicist

  14. For the Devoted Readers that subscribe to Comments, or are just checking back, the results of the auction have been added to these highlighted lots. The total price realized was $5,456,025.


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