“Sales like this do not come along often,” said Sotheby’s specialist David Macdonald after the auction of Mark Birley’s collection from his South Kensington home.
The 500 lots amassed by the legendary
nightclub owner included his wine cellar, a multitude of dog
pictures, his favourite backgammon board and plenty of novelty
items such as his Bulgari pocket watch with a personalised
The sale at
Sotheby's in London on March 21 was likened by Mr Macdonald to
the Jackie Kennedy sale offered by Sotheby's in 1996. "The Birley
sale included both academic and playful objects assembled with
great panache by someone with an extraordinary eye," he said.
Indeed, a flick through the bumper sale
catalogue gives a glimpse of this private world, the hundreds of
illustrated lots interspersed with interior shots of the plush
upholstered rooms of Thurloe Lodge, densely hung with pictures and
crowded with ornaments he had inherited or bought through the trade
and auction houses.
It reflected the understated country house
style with which he decorated his members-only clubs, in particular
Annabel's, the famous Mayfair nightclub he founded 50 years ago and
named after his wife, the former Lady Annabel
Their daughter, India Jane, who was behind
the decision to sell the house and its contents, described how he
lived in "discreet splendour" at Thurloe Lodge, Birley's bachelor
haven after his divorce in 1975 until his death in 2007, which
"provided perfect accommodation for one man, several dogs and an
Sotheby's threw its own-style Birley bash on
the eve of the sale, a society event in itself, attended by many
people connected with the Birley family.
They mingled in a series of dark panelled
rooms, normally used for board meetings off the main saleroom,
which on this occasion was filled with the best from the collection
displayed as they would have been at Thurloe Lodge.
Mr Macdonald capped the Birley 'experience'
with a spritz of 'Mark Birley for Men', the fragrance he launched
with the perfumiers Frédéric Malle and Pierre Bourdon in 1996.
On the day, in true celebrity house sale
fashion, it drew some 800 registered bidders, a quarter new to
Sotheby's, with bids received from 43 countries including Latin
America, Turkey, the Middle East and Russia.
The sale which took place on March 21 was
progressing slowly when I went along for part of the morning
session as some hundred people in the room, a long bank of active
phones and a lively online presence ensured the vast majority of
lots easily outstripped estimates.
Throughout the day well-heeled souvenir
hunters, friends of the Birley family and a good show from the
trade ensured all bar five lots got away to rack up a £3.12m total
- twice the pre-sale estimate.
It proved that despite the current vogue for
bright and sparse interiors, furniture and pictures of quality with
good provenance can still raise paddles.
The sale total was helped along by some
high-valued lots, including a Natalia Goncharova sketch of the
Queen of Shamakhan from the Ballet Russes' production of Coq
d'Or which sold for a sale-topping £330,000, a £130,000
David Hockney sketch of his pet dog, a £250,000 Henry La Thangue
oil on canvas and a £270,000 large Imperial celadon jade originally
bought by Birley's father, the artist Sir Oswald Birley.
Among Birley's more personal items was a
portrait of Blitz, his Rhodesian Ridgeback, which had often sat
beside his master on the front seat of his Bentley.
Placed in full view at the front of the
saleroom, the 3ft (91cm) pine sculpture carved by Nicholas Johnson
sold to one of three bidders on the phones for £26,000 - eight
times the estimate.
Blitz might have also have been the culprit
for the dog-chewed dice which accompanied Birley's bespoke
backgammon board. Made for Birley by Hermés (he had managed its
first London store at the age of 30), the 23 x 15in (58.5 x 38cm)
board had a tapestry woven base.
According to one friend, this was because
Birley found the noise of the dice rattling onto a standard board
irksome. It sold for £16,000 against a £500-1000
Above: a sculpture of Blitz, Birley's
Rhodesian Ridgeback - £26,000 at the Mark Birley sale at
For the Annabel's souvenir hunter, there
were several watercolours of the club's interior and staff by John
The artist made a number of these
watercolour drawings in 1975 and produced a triptych in 1983 from a
selection of these sketches to celebrate the club's 20th
Together, the collection totalled just under
£30,000. Alongside these watercolours, the sale also included a
large number of drawings and cartoons on a wide variety of
subjects, many of which Birley had purchased from London
One such sketch, Rodin's compulsive
bidder, by Terence Parkes (aka Larry, the cartoonist) of a
statue with one arm raised at a Sotheby's auction, fittingly
concluded the sale.
The 5¼in x 7in (13 x 18cm) ink wash, signed
with the artist's pen name Larry, had been purchased from the Chris
Beetles Gallery in St James's. Estimated at £200-300, it sold for
The buyer's premium was 25/20/12%.