The table service that changed history — and other remarkable discoveries
Specialists in our Noble & Private Collections team discuss recent finds that showcase Christie’s expertise and teamwork, and the breadth of our international network
During a visit to Blair Castle in Scotland, Christie’s specialist Paul van den Biesen made a last-minute discovery. Just as he was about to leave for London after two days spent hunting through the castle’s attics and backrooms for potential consignments, he came across a chess set locked inside a glass-fronted display cabinet. It reminded him at once of a visit to the Bernsteinkabinett (Amber Cabinet) at the Historisches Grünes Gewölbe (Historic Green Vault) in Dresden, Germany.
‘I got very excited when I caught a glimpse of the extremely ornate board,’ Paul recalls. ‘Unfortunately the cabinet was locked and there was no time to get a better look. I listed the chessboard on my valuation document anyway, and later on the family agreed to consign it together with a curated selection of paintings, books, arms and armour, which would be sold to benefit the Blair Charitable Trust.’
After the consignment arrived at Christie’s King Street, further research showed that the chessboard came from Königsberg in northern Germany — annexed by the Soviet Union in 1945 and now known as Kaliningrad — and had been crafted in amber around 1700. ‘Amber objects were particularly prized by 18th-century aristocrats because of the rarity of the material and its natural properties,’ the specialist explains.
‘Finely-worked amber caskets, games boards, cups and other objets d’art were exchanged as diplomatic gifts. They could be found in the Kunstkammern (cabinets of curiosities) of the wealthiest and most learned rulers and merchants in Europe, including those belonging to the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, Frederick II of Denmark and August II the Strong — notable collections all now on public display.’
For Van den Biesen, who thrives on rare finds, this was an extraordinary moment in his ongoing search for treasures to offer in Christie’s Noble & Private Collections sales in London.
Throughout its 250-year history Christie’s has held country house and private collection sales which have consistently achieved some of the strongest results for decorative arts at auction. In 2001, Christie’s Amsterdam started holding auctions with a specific focus on consignments from the collections of aristocratic European families. In 2013, these highly successful sales relocated to London.
The Noble & Private Collections sale team searches for works of art with outstanding provenance, focusing on distinctive and eclectic pieces from European private collections. Paul van den Biesen is particularly excited by pieces with strong provenance. ‘Ownership history — such as a silver teaspoon having been used by a member of a royal family — gives a story to an object or artwork which appeals to collectors, which in turn has a positive effect on bidding,’ he says.
‘In 2013 I received a call from a lady based in Stockholm,’ Van den Biesen recalls. ‘She explained that her family was in possession of a royal table service, and that she would be interested in a valuation and possibly selling it at Christie’s.’
After receiving images of part of the service by email, the specialist immediately booked a flight to Stockholm to visit the family. ‘My colleague Amjad Rauf (Senior Director and International Specialist) and I arrived at a retirement home just outside Stockholm and were received by the most elegant lady and her daughters,’ he says. ‘Before seeing the service we joined the family for tea and cake.’
While discussing the provenance of the service over tea, Van den Biesen and Rauf were shown an original 12-course dinner menu and handwritten seating plan, which included places for Prince Liewen, Lord Youriwitsch, Chamberlin de Tolstoy and Russian Minister Count Potocki. The lady explained that she was a direct descendant of Baron Per Adolf Tamm (1774-1856).
At the beginning of the 19th century Baron Tamm was an important figure in the Swedish court of Crown Prince Oscar. On 20 June 1838, he hosted an important political gala dinner for the Russian Tsarevich Alexander (later Tsar Alexander II of Russia) and Prince Oscar (later King Oscar I of Sweden) at his estate, Österby Bruk. The menu for the occasion was now in Van den Biesen’s hands.
‘After tea, we went to the dining room to see the service,’ he says. ‘I looked over at Amjad as he watched the ormolu and cut-glass pieces being brought, one by one, from the sideboard, and saw a smile appear on his face. We immediately recognised the work of one of the finest bronziers of the period, Pierre-Philippe Thomire. Later we deduced that Baron Tamm must have contacted Thomire in Paris to commission the ormolu-bronze and cut-glass table service in the style of the latest fashion for his royal dinner.’
‘I looked over at Amjad as he watched the ormolu and cut-glass pieces being brought, one by one, from the sideboard, and saw a smile appear on his face’
The family archives do not reveal whether or not the dinner was a success, but we know that King Oscar succeeded in reversing his father's obsequious policy towards Imperial Russia, and that Sweden remained neutral during the Crimean War.
‘A find like this service, and the provenance behind it, is exactly what appeals to me when I am looking for Noble sale lots,’ Van den Biesen explains. ‘The idea that this ormolu and cut-glass table service might have contributed, in even the smallest way, to an improvement in the relationship between Russia and Sweden in the first half of the 19th century lends a great story to an already wonderful objet d’art.’
The team at Christie’s is supported by offices and representatives across Europe. For an upcoming edition of Noble & Private Collections, Paul Van den Biesen and his colleagues were invited to join Christie’s Italy representative Countess Bianca di Savoia Aosta Arrivabene on a valuation at a palazzo near Venice, where she is based.
‘We came to an amazing driveway flanked by cypress trees, which led to an imposing palazzo with a Renaissance façade covered in classical statues,’ the Countess recalls. ‘In just two days, the team of specialists made a selection for the auction in London.’ Highlights from the 150-piece collection to be offered in London include unpublished Old Master paintings, a pair of rare red-lacquer, mid-18th century Italian commodes, and various pieces of Chinese porcelain and silver.
‘London remains the centre of the global art market, particularly for important furniture and decorative arts, which is why Italian collections continue to be offered there,’ she explains. ‘London is a key destination for international collectors and interior designers seeking outstanding works. A collection such as the group from the palazzo near Venice will attract interest from collectors around the world.’
Like London, Paris is an important centre for decorative arts, with strong results achieved at auction for private collections including La Vie de Château, Collection Jean-Louis Remilleux. The sale realised a total of almost €10 million at Christie’s Paris in September 2015.
The 300-year-old amber chess set that Paul van den Biesen discovered locked in a cabinet at Blair Castle came to Christie’s as a result of the auction house’s longstanding relationship with the Dukes of Atholl. It was offered in the dedicated Sculpture et Objets d'Art Européens sale at Christie’s Paris on 16 June 2015, and sold for €289,500 against a pre-sale estimate of €40,000-60,000. ‘The sale,’ says Paul, ‘showcased Christie’s expertise and teamwork, as well as the breadth of our international network.’