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Hammer highlights

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THE Guerlain collection sold in Paris last month had quality, decorative appeal and a first airing on the market for around seven decades.

Or, as one specialist ceramics dealer put it, the sale “ticked various boxes and was a nice encapsulation of an old-fashioned collection”.

So when this select consignment was offered at Drouot by Beaussant- Lefèvre (25% buyer’s premium) on January 31, the results proved it: a sell-out of all 29 lots boosted by a handful of dramatic prices for the best of the bunch.

Jean-Pierre and Christiane Guerlain put together their ceramics collection in the inter-war period and just after the Second World War. These keen enthusiasts also collected Hispano-Moresque wares (dispersed some years ago), and their nephew Jean Pierre collected French faience.

The maiolica market can be selective and not everything automatically flies out of the window. The group sold last month under the expertise of Michel Vandermeersch had come from Madame Guerlain’s descendants. This was old-school taste with less of an emphasis on the historatio wares with their biblical or mythological scenes that tend to lead this field these days.

Instead, its choicest pieces were a group of early 16th century ‘Bella’ portrait dishes and plates from the Castel Durante or Urbino workshops.

Rare to market these days, Vandermeersch reckoned he had not encountered pieces like these for a decade. They formed the jewels of the group, augmented by some rarities from the early 15th century from Deruta and Naples, some finely decorated pieces from Faenza and rounded off with a small group of French faience from Montpelier and Nevers.

During the pre-sale viewing the ensemble took a number of visitors by surprise, said Vandermeersch.

“The interesting thing was that people who didn’t know about maiolica said how beautiful all this is,” he added.

At the auction this perhaps translated into some new buyers as, alongside known collectors, some faces that were new to the expert appeared. Purchasers hailed from countries one traditionally associates with this collecting field – France, the UK and the US – but also, more unusually, from Hong Kong.

Demand was strongest “for the most aesthetically pleasing, fine quality pieces”, said Vandermeersch, notably for Bella wares. Results for these were “the best prices I’ve had”.

“Those things that were a bit rarer, 15th century pieces which were sought-after a few years ago, were slightly more difficult,” he added. Prices for these were much more in line with the auctioneers’ estimates.

Topping the bill was a key piece in the collection – a 10in (24.5cm) diameter bowl painted with a fullface portrait bust of a Bella with braided hair inscribed Minerva Bella along a scrolling ribbon.

Dated to c.1530 and ascribed to Castel Durante or Urbino, this well-preserved piece, with only a few small enamel losses and a small restuck area to the border, trebled expectations to take €109,000 (£93,965).

But chasing its tail just a shade behind, at a multi-estimate €108,000 (£93,105), was another Bella dish. This one measured 8½in (21.5cm) and had a threequarter view bust portrait of a young woman in a boldly striped hat and bodice inscribed Cornelia on a coiling ribbon, with the date 1531 incorporated into the embroidery on her high collar.

A third high-flying Bella dish of c.1535 measuring 8½in (22cm) diameter featured a profile portrait titled Francessca Ba of a woman in an elaborate headdress and matching jacket. This realised €71,000 (£61,205).

Male subjects

Two other portrait dishes of the same period attributed to the same area that outstripped their guides were decorated with male subjects: St Francis and Sampson.

Both are shown above, along with a representative selection of other pieces from the auction which sold more in line with expectations.

The sale ended on another high note with the multi-estimate price for one of four pieces of French faience included in the sale.

A pair of 12½in (31.5cm) high gourd-shaped flasks produced in Nevers in the 17th century boasted finely modelled ram’s head handles and were decorated on a deep blue ground with aquatic scenes of putti sporting dolphins and a sea monster, a satyr and other figures.

Among the labels on the base of these well-preserved pieces, which had only a few missing enamel areas and chips to the rams’ horns, was one for the 1937 retrospective exhibition at the Musée de Nevers on local ceramics and glass. A €25,000-35,000 estimate on these flasks was surpassed as the bidding rose to €84,000 (£72,415).