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Birley sale: eclectic mix from nightclub owner’s London home

19 April 2013Written by Gabriel Berner

“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 dial.

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 Vane-Tempest-Stewart.

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 occasional guest". 

Society Event

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 estimate. 

 

13-04-19-2087LS01X sculpture birley.jpg

Above: a sculpture of Blitz, Birley's Rhodesian Ridgeback - £26,000 at the Mark Birley sale at Sotheby's.

 

For the Annabel's souvenir hunter, there were several watercolours of the club's interior and staff by John Stanton Ward.

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 anniversary.

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 galleries.

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 £2200.

The buyer's premium was 25/20/12%.

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