Baroness Marion Lambert was renowned as one of the greatest collectors of contemporary art and photography in the late-20th and early 21st centuries. According to her son, Henri Lambert, also an art collector, her taste was ‘very varied and somewhat eclectic’ — but, more than that, ‘I never found that anything that she bought left me cold.’
Her photography collection, started originally in the 1980s for the Geneva branch of Bank Brussels Lambert, had such an impact on executives there that they refused to show it. Marion Lambert had titled it “Veronica’s Revenge” after the biblical figure who wiped Christ’s brow on the way to Calvary — and captured his image on cloth.
The collection contained work by now-seminal figures including Cindy Sherman and Mike Kelley, and is widely credited with fuelling the rise of photography in the art market. Marion Lambert would go on to support major painters including Rudolf Stingel and Christopher Wool early in their careers.
‘Her approach to art was always about, “What can it say?” and that message needed to be something a little bit more than, “Oh, it’s pretty,”’ says Henri. Five years after his mother’s death in a traffic accident in London, he is working with Christie’s and the charity War Child to present a selection of fine and decorative art that demonstrates her exceptional taste. It spans works by Claude Cahun and Raymond Pettibon, late Louis XV furniture and an exquisite Fiat 600 “Jolly”.
Marion Lambert was known for the force of her personality as well as her eye. ‘She had a lot of integrity when it came to choosing art,’ Henri says, ‘and she always used to say that art had to disturb a little bit. And that’s where it kind of joins her family facing persona, where my mother was never the one to be superficial or to let things slide — she wouldn't let you get away with anything.’
Her own background, he thinks, informed her tenacity and vision. Born in 1943 in the Netherlands before relocating to Switzerland just after the Second World War, Marion’s early life was marked by scarcity. ‘There was a lot of instability,’ he says. ‘I believe that the energy that she had for collecting stemmed from this — these things provided security.’
Henri’s uncle Léon Lambert was also a major collector of American mid-century art, and he says that Marion ‘benefited a lot from the people that gave him advice’. What really drove her own passion, however, was ‘in one word, curiosity. It’s that curiosity that would lead her to walk into a gallery, whether she knew them or not, and meet people in that world.’
Collaborating with the celebrated decorator Jacques Grange also gave Marion’s collection a home that matched it in quality, vision and reputation. Those interiors inform the scenography of the May sales, but, says Henri, cannot be granted a guiding philosophy. ‘I’m pretty sure that if you had asked for that she would say: “It just goes together.” It wasn’t cerebral, it was much more felt. There was always the idea of playing a little bit and creating contrasts.’
Before she died, Marion was organising a charity auction to support young refugees, and campaigned actively for many children’s charities. Henri wanted to honour her last project with the current sale, and part of the proceeds will help upscale efforts by War Child in Iraq and Jordan. ‘In early childhood development interventions, War Child is one of the best in the field,’ says Henri. ‘And the charity is of the size where the money raised will make a real difference.’
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One story of Marion’s has stayed with Henri, he says, ‘because it reminds me of how important early childhood can be. She always used to say her first memories of her father were them going to the Rijksmuseum together in Amsterdam, where she was born, and looking at Rembrandts. So, her first love was Rembrandt. And then, you know, the rest is here for all of us to see.’