Illustrious origins: rare works from Galerie Steinitz owned by the likes of J.P. Morgan, the Rothschilds, YSL and Queen Marie Antoinette
Benjamin Steinitz, director of the Paris antiques business, reveals the remarkable provenance behind some of the 58 lots offered in September, from porcelain owned by Marie Antoinette to a set of giltwood chairs from Karl Lagerfeld’s dining room
‘Dealing in antiques offers the most wonderful life,’ says Benjamin Steinitz, director of Galerie Steinitz in Paris. ‘It is suffused with learning, enquiry and beauty, and that fills me with energy every day.’
Established by Benjamin’s parents in 1968, Galerie Steinitz is now one of the most respected dealers of French decorative arts in the world.
‘Our role today is about more than just authenticating the works of art we offer,’ he says. ‘We are dedicated to tracing their histories — often lost over time — and to highlighting the artistic context in which they were created.’
Offered in Provenance Revealed on 21 September at Christie’s in London are 58 rare and important works of art from Galerie Steinitz, each with exceptional provenance and an intriguing story behind it.
‘Works of art can attain mythical status when illustrious provenances are revealed,’ says Amjad Rauf, Christie’s International Head of Masterpiece and Private Sales. The history behind these works, he adds, is ‘on a par with quality and design in enhancing their historical and material value’.
Each piece has been selected for its quality, beauty and historical resonance, encompassing French royalty, 19th-century financial titans, and the private worlds of fashion designers such as Yves Saint Laurent, Hubert de Givenchy and Karl Lagerfeld.
‘I’m delighted to be working with Christie’s, because we share a passion for making the world realise the importance and beauty of French decorative arts,’ says Steinitz.
In tandem with their commitment to tracing early provenances and uncovering recent discoveries, Christie’s and Galerie Steinitz have collaborated with the technology company Artory — a world leader in art tech and the blockchain-secured registration of physical artworks and collectibles — for this sale. Each lot will be registered and secured on the blockchain together with the extensive research that has been undertaken on it — a first in the field of classic art.
‘We are very pleased to create an everlasting link between the work of art, its authenticity and its provenance — all while keeping the client’s identity confidential,’ Steinitz enthuses.
Steinitz was immersed in the world of French decorative arts from an early age. Weekends were spent visiting museums such as Versailles, the Louvre and the Musée Nissim de Camondo, while evenings frequently unfolded at the Galerie Steinitz with its treasure trove of furniture, sculpture and objets d’art from the 17th and 18th centuries.
There were also regular trips to auction houses. ‘My father made me bid on a piece in 1979,’ he recalls. ‘Everybody was laughing in the auction room because I was a young kid. My heart was beating so fast. I realised that day that the decorative arts would be the rest of my life.’
Early encounters with great masterpieces fuelled his interest. ‘I was emotionally and artistically struck by some of the objects that I saw as a young man,’ he says. ‘They ignited in me an insatiable appetite to discover and to learn.’
One such object was a small writing table, circa 1670-75, embellished with blue-stained horn marquetry, which now resides in the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
‘It is the only piece of furniture known to have survived from the now lost Trianon de Porcelaine in the gardens of Versailles,’ he says. ‘I am proud to say that my father discovered it one day, seemingly out of nowhere.’
After a short stint working in the contemporary art world, Steinitz returned to Paris in 1991 to join the family business. ‘I’m a great appreciator of modern art, but I think it’s very important that we stay true to our passion,’ he says with a smile. ‘I wouldn’t want to advise my clients towards things that I’m not the very best ambassador for.’
Since taking over the gallery, now located at 6 Rue Royale, Steinitz has supplied connoisseur collectors and institutions such as the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay and the Art Institute of Chicago with the finest examples of French furniture and decorative arts on the market.
‘As storytellers and tastemakers, it’s a dream to create dialogues between unexpected pieces in a space charged with such positive history,’ Steinitz says, explaining that the gallery’s Neoclassical townhouse has been associated with such celebrated names as Le Roy de Senneville, Madame de Staël and Maison Fouquet.
Among the most compelling pieces in the sale is a late-Louis XV giltwood fauteuil by Jean Boucault, which was delivered in 1783 to the Palace of Versailles for the apartment of the Baron de Breteuil, Secretary of State of the Royal Household. It bears the brand ‘W’, which was applied on furniture supplied for Versailles by the Garde-Meuble de la Couronne (Royal Wardrobe).
An 18th-century marble group depicting Narcissus in the guise of a young hunter was once part of one of the finest and most important art collections in 18th-century France — that of Louis-Antoine Crozat (1699-1770), Baron de Thiers, Brigadier of the King’s Armies and Lieutenant General for His Majesty of the Province of Champagne.
In addition to the lots mentioned in the video above, Steinitz admires a rare, gilded bronze gueridon from around 1800 (above left). It is known to have graced the collection of Boni de Castellane (1867-1932), a leading Belle Epoque tastemaker whose lavish residence on Avenue Foch, the Palais Rose, was the last great 19th-century hôtel particulier to be built in Paris.
It was only after purchasing the piece, however, that the gallery discovered its connection to the royal family of Bavaria.
‘Thanks to extensive research into an inventory mark, which had not been documented before, we discovered that it had previously belonged to Maximilian-Emanuel, Duke in Bavaria,’ Steinitz notes. ‘There will be a lot of stories like this to discover in the sale.’
Also coming to auction are a set of eight Louis XVI Georges Jacob chairs from around 1785 (above), with eagle heads on the backrest. ‘Their design is very unusual, and to find a complete set is extremely rare,’ says Steinitz, adding that they too have illustrious provenance. They are believed to be the last set of chairs executed for Queen Marie Antoinette, and have been included in two exhibitions where an association with her has been made.
Although the chairs bear no royal inventory marks, the lyre-form splat is particularly associated with Georges Jacob’s work for the royal household around 1788.
‘Later, the industrial and financial revolutions gave rise to a new generation of art collectors across 19th-century Europe,’ explains Rauf. ‘The chairs were displayed in “Marie Antoinette’s Boudoir” of the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum), and were in the collection of the businessman and connoisseur Alexander Barker [1797-1873], who considered himself the leading collector in England.’
Other notable lots include a Louis XV ormolu cartel clock by Charles Cressent, the movement by Pierre Leroy, circa 1735; a pair of Italian ochre and grey-painted console tables from the early 18th century; and a pair of Louis XVI canapés by Nicolas-Denis Delaisement (above).
‘We know that these two wonderful chairs were once placed in the green drawing room at Mentmore Towers, the magical Rothschild residence in Buckinghamshire,’ says Steinitz. They were later sold in the renowned Mentmore Towers house sale in 1977 following the death of Harry Primrose (1882-1974), 6th Earl of Rosebery.
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‘One of the wonderful things about working in the decorative arts is discovering people through their objects,’ says Steinitz. ‘Your collection gives an idea of who you were.’
As for Steinitz himself, he says he would like to be remembered as someone of great curiosity who always wanted to learn more: ‘This is our role as antique dealers. And our goal is to find people who share the same passion as us.’