It took them over a week, but Bonhams have now been able to announce a new record for a piece of 19th century furniture achieved. The new high was achieved when this French ormolu, lacquer and Brazilian rosewood cabinet imitating the shape of a Japanese shodana realised a mighty £1.8m.
However, the price achieved attracted the attentions of the
French government who questioned the legitimacy of the sale of a
major French work of art from a French consignor on English
At least seven of these cabinets, all slight stylistic variants,
are thought to have been made to an original design by Edouard
Its first incarnation was a version dated 1877 set with an oil
painting by Edouard Detaille and now in the Musée d'Orsay,
It formed the most celebrated element of a fabulous suite of
neo-Japanese furniture designed by Lièvre for the director of the
Bordeaux ceramics factory, Albert Vieillard (1841-1895).
Bonhams' cabinet - set with a Meiji lacquer plaque depicting
Juroujin, god of longevity - was made almost two decades later by
the luxury store Escalier de Cristal.
George and Henry Pannier, the merchant owners of Cristal who
specialised in the so-called Sino-Japanese style, had attended the
workshop sales of Lièvre's sketches and plans held posthumously in
1887 and 1890. Alongside other designs, they had acquired the
technical drawings for this cabinet together with reproduction
It is thanks to the archives of the Pannier brothers that we
know that a further six cabinets were made.
The craftsmen were Kroeller (who executed the woodwork) and
Pestat (the bronze mounts). The clients were Monsieurs Sieber,
Magnier, David, Gizycki, Galoppe and the Grand Duc Wladimir.
Quite which cabinet was made for which client is unclear
although an example in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg (set
with a watercolour by George Clairin) was in the Anitchkov Palace
by 1897 and is probably that made for the Grand Duc Wladimir.
Another appeared for sale quite recently at German auctioneers
Lempertz in May 2006 where, estimated at just €12,000-15,000, it
sold for €750,000.
Bonhams' cabinet which was offered on December 4 had been
consigned from a French collection.
The Russian connection that encouraged Bonhams to have the
extensive catalogue notes translated into Cyrillic, proved
important to the bidding. Just an hour prior to the sale a
French-based Russian bidder booked a telephone line and proceeded
to lock horns with another telephone bidder, understood to be
calling from Russia.
The £300,000-500,000 estimate was left behind as François Le
Brun, head of Bonhams' Continental furniture department, accepted
bids at the rostrum to £1.8m.
Le Brun described the moment as "a once-in-a-lifetime sale which
goes to the heart of the magic of auctioneering".
But such a big number (it rose to £2,036,000 when the buyer's
premium was added) drew the attentions of the French government and
it was only after a nervous week that Bonhams could announce a sale
that ranks 19th century furniture alongside the best ancien regime
Two factors are understood to have encouraged the French
authorities to drop their interest: the Musée d'Orsay already held
the 1877 original and did not wish to purchase another and the
piece was acquired by a French buyer and will again return to
By Roland Arkell
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