In the mid-1980s, John and Susan Gutfreund acquired a 20-room duplex in one of the most prestigious buildings in Manhattan. Designed in 1929 by the architect Rosario Candela (1890-1953), the apartment block was also home to the businessman Charles Schwab and members of the Rockefeller family.
For the financier and his philanthropist wife, the property was to be a dazzling setting for entertaining and a canvas for Susan’s artistry. John was CEO of the investment firm Salomon Brothers and Susan was beginning to make her mark on New York society. Vanity Fair writer Bob Colacello described her as a ‘quirky and generous’ host with an imaginative vitality.
On 26 and 27 January, The Collection of Mr. and Mrs. John Gutfreund 834 Fifth Avenue will be offered for sale at Christie’s in New York. The live sale comprises important English and French furniture, Russian works of art, silverware and porcelain, while three complementary online sales focus on The Art of Entertaining, Selections from the Library and Chanel Fashion Jewellery.
Samuel had a talent for incorporating a client’s taste into his designs, says deputy chairman of Christie’s Jonathan Rendell. The Gutfreunds had travelled widely in Europe, and the artefacts they collected provided aesthetic inspiration for the interiors. As Susan Gutfreund recalled, ‘Henri would discuss with me doing the perfect base, like giving a woman a couture dress that was sheer perfection whether she added fantastic jewels or not.’
The results were stunning. ‘It was an apartment to entertain in,’ says Rendell. Upstairs, walls had been knocked through to create a 50ft-long living room furnished with a George III Moorfields carpet designed by Robert Adam, while the library contained a 12ft-long Louis XVI canapé by Jean-Baptiste Lelarge that had belonged to the Gutfreunds’ neighbour in Paris, the fashion designer Hubert de Givenchy (1927-2018). Windows overlooking Central Park gently filtered the hazy New York light.
In the Winter Garden the walls were painted a vivid celadon green and overlaid with gilt-trelliswork panelling. Gutfreund remembers Samuel observing the room from every angle and ‘at all times of the day. He was like a couturier, always fine-tuning details.’
In the dining room Russian hardstone vases, silverware and Royal Copenhagen porcelain were arranged on a suite of Adam-inspired George III cream- and blue-painted furniture that had originally been made for the 16th-century Parham House estate in Sussex.
At a time when nouvelle cuisine and Philippe Starck’s ergonomic aesthetic were considered the last word in style, Gutfreund’s ‘Proustian evenings’ were romantic and decadent, evoking a magical fin-de-siècle past, with a gilt candelabrum on every table and a little bag of scents tied to each chair.
Guests were an eclectic mix of Wall Street sharpshooters, Washington power brokers and grande dames — the former Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown remembers rubbing shoulders with Henry Kissinger, a Brazilian millionaire and a German princess in silver shoes.
One favoured regular was the fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld (1933-2019). ‘Susan Gutfreund had a love of French culture and that extended to couture, and in particular Chanel,’ says Rendell. ‘She was very close to Karl Lagerfeld, from whom she acquired many pieces of costume jewellery designed for Chanel shows — much of it unique.’
The collection of Chanel costume jewellery offered online features a striking set of Gripoix glass and faux pearl jewellery (above), worn on the runway during the Chanel ready-to-wear spring/summer 93 show, and a pair of oversized faux pearl and resin earrings (also above).
It was after attending a party at the Gutfreunds’ newly decorated apartment that the entertainment mogul A. Jerrold Perenchio (1930-2017) approached Samuel to restore Chartwell, his French-style chateau in Los Angeles. The house, designed in 1935 by Sumner Spaulding, became known as one of the most beautiful in America.
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‘Perenchio was enormously impressed with what he saw,’ says Rendell. ‘Susan Gutfreund has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the decorative arts and of the French art de vivre, so she completely understood what Samuel was trying to do. With his help, the interior of 834 Fifth Avenue was transformed into a total work of art.’