If you delight in the 19th century rococo revival style – playful putti, festoons of ormolu and pastoral vignettes – then the Safford sale held by Freeman’s in Philadelphia was for you.
Robert Safford, who died in 2011, accrued
his fortune in the financial services business, selling life
insurance to millions of Americans.
With the fruits of his labour estimated at
$300m, in 1990 he and his second wife Barbara bought, restored and
extended Vaux Hill, a 20-room country estate with pre-Revolutionary
origins in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, and together set about
decorating it in the style they had admired most on visits to the
country houses of Europe.
Their vision for their white marble home
built in the American Greek-Revival style was a lavish interior
reminiscent of Marie Antoinette's Le Petit Trianon at Versailles.
And, in a 20-year shopping spree that - with little concern for the
purse strings - took in the galleries of Miami, New York, New
Orleans, London and Paris, they accrued the imposing collection of
19th and 20th century decor that Freeman's specialist David Walker
considered "the most exciting projects I've ever worked on".
Above: the Pink Drawing Room at Vaux
Hill was home to a gilt bronze and KPM porcelain longcase clock
that sold at $200,000 (£130,700).
The Saffords' love of opulence, seen across
274 selected lots, was typified by the Pink Drawing Room at Vaux
Hill and its remarkable gilt-bronze and porcelain longcase clock
made by the Königliche Porzellan-Manufaktur of Berlin c.1895. It
stands 7ft 10in (2.39m) high. If for you the rococo revival
represents the worst excesses of late 19th century taste, then best
look away now.
It is believed only six of these clocks,
smothered in playful putti, floral festoons and figures allegorical
of Dawn, were produced, including one given to Queen Victoria by
her grandson Kaiser Willhelm II in 1895 and now in Osborne House on
the Isle of Wight. Another was reputedly given to Richard Nixon as
a diplomatic gift and is now in the White House stores.
This example, decorated to the trunk with a
view of Sanssouci, Frederick the Great's former summer palace, was
probably that sold at Christie's King Street in 2001 for a
premium-inclusive £68,650. Estimated here at $80,000-120,000 for
the auction on September 25, it sold for $200,000 (£130,700) to a
Dealers from Miami, New York and New Orleans
for whom Robert Safford had been a valued, and much-liked client,
bid strongly throughout the sale but - with this clock an exception
- they were often priced out of the bidding by buyers from
"It's interesting to see the shift in the
marketplace. More and more, we're seeing interest from collectors
in Asia and the Middle East for English and Continental decorative
arts," said Mr Walker. Here, among close to 400 registered bidders,
it was Russian and Chinese buyers, attracted to the sale by the
sheer quantity of material, who accounted for two thirds of the
sale by value.
Taste in the People's Republic is evolving
rapidly and all the signs are that the Chinese will be a major
force in this particular marketplace, one that historically has had
its greatest appeal in the so-called emerging markets.
Buyers from Hong Kong and Mainland China
made their presence felt from the opening lot of the sale, a 6ft
high by 3ft 5in wide (1.83m x 1.04m) giltwood secretaire cabinet
c.1880 set with a multitude of Meissen porcelain plaques.
Those to the exterior depicted landscapes,
seascapes, classical ruins and genre scenes after European Old
Masters. To the interior were Dutch-style still lifes. William
Oppenheim, an agent for the Meissen factory, exhibited a very
similar ebonised cabinet at the 1878Exposition Universelle.
This giltwood example was among the last
pieces the Saffords had bought for Vaux Hill, acquired in 1997
shortly after Christie's New York sold the property of Mexican
actress Maria Félix where it had made $307,200 ($260,000 hammer).
Also in 1997, a similar cabinet was sold by Christie's in Melbourne
for Aus$184,000 and an ebonised example by Sotheby's in London for
More recently, a similar cabinet sold for
£69,075 at Christie's King Street's sale, The Opulent Eye, on
September 10. When in London promoting the Safford sale, Mr Walker
had the opportunity to inspect both and was of the opinion that,
while the casework to the Safford secretaire was problematic (some
of the giltwork was later) the plaques it housed were superior.
It would have been a brave man to suggest it
might bring $260,000 again, but estimated at $40,000-60,000, it
sold for $210,000 (£137,250) to a Chinese buyer.
An obvious focus for Russian interest - and
one of the items shipped to London for the Pall Mall preview held
in association with marketing allies Lyon & Turnbull - was an
ormolu-mounted urn standing 2ft 8in (81cm) high made by the
Imperial Porcelain Factory, St Petersburg c.1826.
Monumental campana-form urns decorated with
scenes after Old Master paintings were often given as diplomatic
gifts by Nicholas I.
The decoration to this example, thought to
depict Charles II in exile, was doubtless carefully chosen to
please the recipient.
Its commercial appeal was hampered a little
by condition - the handles were replaced and there was a 4in (10cm)
area of restoration to the rim - but, in a marketplace where
seven-figure sums are not unknown, the estimate of $100,000-150,000
more than reflected this. It sold for $410,000 (£268,000).
Unbeknown to the auctioneers they had a
second lot of Imperial porcelain in this sale, a pair of large 3ft
3in (99cm) high vases from the Turquoise Drawing Room at Vaux Hill.
Each was painted to a turquoise ground with a courting country
couple in a bucolic landscape above relief moulded and gilded
Although catalogued as Sèvres style and 20th
century, and estimated at just $4000-6000, a bid of $400,000
(£261,450) from Moscow quickly rebranded these as made in St
Petersburg in the first half of the 19th century.
A Russian attribution also helped the
fortunes of a Louis XVI-style gilt-bronze and rhodonite seven-piece
desk set comprising an inkstand, chamberstick, cassolette, bell, a
pair of candlesticks and a document case.
This was no earlier than c.1890 but much
admired for both the colour of the pink stone (rhodonite is mined
in Russia and was a favourite of Fabergé) and the presence of a
mongramme that the auctioneers had tried and failed to decipher.
Estimated at $6000-8000, it was subject to competition up to
According to received wisdom, many of these
items were coming back on the market too soon - and these days no
sale of English and continental furniture has a blueprint for
success. But the green light to pitch this sale at such affordable
levels - perhaps 20-30 cents on the dollar to the retail levels the
Saffords had paid - was doubtless crucial to the fortunes of a
five-hour sale that saw every lot sell for a total of $3.2m, close
to three times the pre-sale estimate.
In short, the Saffords had bought for
pleasure rather than investment, enjoyed the ride and understood
how to disembark in style.
As Barbara Safford recalled: "Everyone we
met was so lovely. They shared their collections with us and became
our very good friends. They would take us to their favourite
restaurants and invite us to dinners at their homes. I will always
cherish those memories. The antique world is a small and connected
The buyer's premium at Freeman's was 25%.