Paintings regularly sell for millions of dollars at auction. It's rare, in contrast, that a piece of furniture exceeds $500,000. This fall at Sotheby’s Paris, that might change.
On Sept. 20, the estate of Robert Zellinger de Balkany, a French businessman who made his fortune by bringing American-style malls to France, will hit the auction block. One of the sale’s star lots is a 17th century stone-studded ebony cabinet, carrying an estimate in excess of €2 million ($2.2 million.)
“Yes, there are not many pieces of furniture that come to auction with this type of price range,” acknowledged Mario Tavella, chairman of Sotheby’s Europe, in an interview, “but I think the provenance and craftsmanship justifies the estimate.”
The craftsmanship of the cabinet, which is almost six feet high, is unparalleled. The only one like it is in the hands of the U.K. National Trust. The provenance, too, is hard to beat: Initially owned by the powerful 17th century Borghese pope, Paul V, it remained in the hands of the Borgheses until the mid-19th century, at which point the mannerist cabinet fell out of style and the family put it up for sale.
Unfashionable as it might have been, it was still good enough for George IV, king of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and of Hanover, who put it on display in the Great Hall of Windsor Castle in 1827. Thirteen years later, the cabinet was moved to Buckingham Palace. After 120 years, the cabinet fell out of fashion again (maybe the Windsors had just caught up to Rome by that point), and Queen Elizabeth II sold it in 1959 at Christie’s. De Balkany’s father purchased the cabinet and eventually handed it down to his son, who placed it on display in his lavish Paris mansion, the Hôtel de Feuquières.
“It’s done a sort of mini-grand tour, just the other way around,” joked Tavella.
The cabinet is almost as imposing as its provenance. Three stories are covered in gilt bronze and hard colorful stones in a technique known as pietra dura, and its front has 26 mini-columns covered in a veneer made from brilliant blue lapis lazuli, which at the time was one of the rarer stones on the European continent. The cabinet has Pope Paul V’s crest embedded into the design; topping it are five figures whose heads are made out of silver. “This is really the very best,” said Tavella. “And I’m not just saying this because I’m selling it now.”
The inside of the cabinet, which is four feet wide and more than a foot-and-a-half deep, was initially built to hold precious stones, coins, and shells and remains something of a mystery. Tavella said that his specialists “still haven’t discovered all of its tricks—there are a lot of secret drawers inside the cabinet, but they’re just so well concealed,” he said. “But bit by bit, we’re getting it open.”